Real Madrid

Despite All-Star hype, Real Madrid focused on its preseason

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USA TODAY

Despite All-Star hype, Real Madrid focused on its preseason

Real Madrid is one of the biggest sports brands in the world and any time they visit an American city it's a big deal.

That's how Chicago and Major League Soccer are treating Los Merengues' appearance for the MLS All-Star Game. There's plenty of events, advertising and attention given to the All-Star Game to show what a big deal it is to MLS and soccer in Chicago.

However, for Real Madrid, the two-time defending UEFA Champions League winners, this is still just the preseason. On top of that, Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the two most famous and talented soccer players in the world alongside Leo Messi, isn't with the team.

"We want to end the preseason with a victory," German midfielder Toni Kroos said in a press conference before the match on Tuesday. "It's an important game. It's the last game before the real season starts, before the games count.

"That's why we are here, to win this game tomorrow, to prepare for the next games."

Madrid hasn't yet won in the preseason. Real has lost to Manchester United on penalties in Santa Clara, Calif., got smoked by Manchester City 4-1 in Los Angeles and lost to rival Barcelona in Miami.

While the team isn't going to worry about negative results in exhibition matches, a club used to winning with regularity won't want to go without a win on its four-match U.S. tour.

"It's only preseason, that's all," manager Zinedine Zidane said through a translator. "The most important thing is to finish (the preseason) well."

While the MLS All-Stars will be playing for the pride of their league. The value of a result in an exhibition game always has questionable, at best, value. It still can provide extra exposure to the league, who now boasts a solid collection of world famous players, and may give extra attention to the Chicago Fire in a resurgent season for the team.

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic, who is also coaching the MLS All-Stars, said playing against Real Madrid is "an occasion that you just cannot let go.” For Madrid, it's still just preseason, but playing the MLS All-Stars is strange because of the thrown-together aspect of the All-Star team.

"In terms of organization, I don't know how they're going to play," Zidane said. "What I do know is they're a very good team."

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

MESA, Ariz. – Chairman Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to be known someday as one of the greatest sports franchises in the world, right up there with global brands like the New England Patriots, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

But the most relevant blueprint for baseball operations right now might be the Atlanta Braves model that won 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, an unbelievable run that still only resulted in one World Series title.

In a "Chicks Dig The Long Ball" era, the Braves had 60 percent of a Hall of Fame rotation (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz) and a manager (Bobby Cox) who would get his own Cooperstown plaque.

The Braves Way still didn't only revolve around baseball immortals. The churn of young talent and under-the-radar contributors makes big-time prospects Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ — and somehow finding a next wave of pitching — so important to The Plan.

"The Braves did such a great job during their run of always breaking in a guy or two," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "There's a lot of benefits to always trying to break in a guy every year, trying to add new blood every single year. Young guys are great even for a veteran team, because they provide the spark. They provide new energy.

"I thought Willson (Contreras) was a big part of that last year. Coming up in the middle of the season, it was like a great spark for our guys. Maybe one of these guys can provide that spark."

During that 15-year window, the Braves had 14 different players show up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting:  

1991: Brian Hunter, Mike Stanton
1992: Mark Wohlers
1993: Greg McMichael 
1994: Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez
1995: Chipper Jones
1996: Jermaine Dye 
1997: Andruw Jones 
1998: Kerry Ligtenberg 
1999: Kevin McGlinchy
2000: Rafael Furcal 
2001: –
2002: Damian Moss
2003: –
2004: –
2005: Jeff Francoeur

The Braves produced Rookie of the Year winners in 1990 (David Justice), 2000 (Furcal) and 2011 (Craig Kimbrel). That gap in the early 2000s foreshadowed a relative down cycle where the Braves averaged almost 82 losses between 2006 and 2009 and made zero playoff appearances.

Jason Heyward's big-league debut in 2010 coincided with a run of four straight seasons where the Braves averaged 90-plus wins and made the playoffs three times.

[MORE: Why Joe Maddon sees Kyle Schwarber as the leadoff guy in Cubs lineup]

Baseball America put Jimenez (No. 14) and Happ (No. 63) on its preseason top-100 list of prospects. Whether it's making an impression on Joe Maddon's coaching staff, being showcased for a future trade or getting more comfortable in the spotlight, Jimenez and Happ will be two players to watch when the Cubs begin their Cactus League schedule on Saturday.

"Everyone thinks our future is here," Hoyer said. "It's really important to never get caught in that. You always want to have guys in the minor leagues ready to come up. Having organizational depth is really important. Those guys are good players and they're going to help us at some point."

Jimenez is a dynamic 6-foot-4 corner outfielder from the Dominican Republic who figures to begin his age-20 season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach. Happ, a 2015 first-round pick, finished last season at Double-A Tennessee and can switch-hit and move between the infield and the outfield.

Contreras is trying to make the leap from energizer to everyday frontline catcher. Albert Almora Jr. — who also contributed to a championship team as a rookie — is trying to earn the center-field job. The Cubs already trusted Carl Edwards Jr. in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 and now hope he can keep evolving into an Andrew Miller-type reliever.

The Cubs need the assembly line that's rolled out Anthony Rizzo (June 2012), Kyle Hendricks (July 2014), Javier Baez (August 2014), Kris Bryant and Addison Russell (April 2015) and Kyle Schwarber (June 2015) to keep delivering talent.

"It's something that we have to be really mindful of," Hoyer said, "to make sure that we continue to put a lot of focus on player development, the same kind of focus that we put on it when we were rebuilding, because those guys are going to have a huge impact on us."