Fire

Wrigley Field transforms for soccer, American-led AS Roma

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Wrigley Field transforms for soccer, American-led AS Roma

Michael Bradley resided in Palatine during his high school years, honing his craft in the Chicago-area youth soccer circuit while his dad, Bob, coached the Fire. He never made it to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game while living in the area.

This weekend, Bradley finally made it to the Friendly Confines, but not for baseball. The U.S. international midfielder not only made his debut for powerful Italian club AS Roma on Sunday, but he also experienced his first game at the storied ballpark.

"Beautiful," Bradley said of Wrigley Field prior to Roma's 4-0 win over Zaglebie Lubin Sunday. "You see right away how much history is inside here. I think for our team, for our players, you sensed right away you're in a special place."

The infield dirt was covered in sod and the pitcher's mound and batters box were gone, replaced by patches of green grass. Soccer balls bounced off the ivy like sure-fire doubles. Bradley patrolled areas of the field usually reserved for Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro. The crowd let out roars for Roma's four goals like Anthony Rizzo had pelted Sheffield Ave. with a home run.

It had been 28 years since soccer was last played at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Sting took the pitch at that time, averaging under 9,000 fans in 1984, their final outdoor season. On Sunday, 22,181 fans watched the match from the stands at Wrigley Field.

AS Roma isn't a giant in Italian's Serie A, at least not comparatively. They're not AC Milan, Internazionale, or Juventes. But they're hoping to get to that level, and success in the Americas is a big part of that plan.

The club was purchased by a group led by American Thomas R. DiBenedetto, a member of the Fenway Sports Group, which also owns the Boston Red Sox and storied English Premier League club Liverpool.

Chief executive officer Mark Pannes, a native of Boston, has an ambitious vision of Roma's place in the United States. The club signed a seven-year deal with Disney that will have their first-team players train at the Wide World of Sports complex in Florida every year, and they plan on bringing the club to the United States for pre-season friendlies every other year.

"It makes us authentic in the U.S. in a way -- for years, clubs used to come to the U.S. with a smash-and-grab mentality where they would tour through a city once every four or five years, or even the country once every four of five years and do it just for appearance fees," Pannes explained. "And that's not the case with us. We have a very long-term vision of being hopefully the most popular club in the U.S."

A goal for Pannes and the business side of Roma is to find so-called anchor cities, where the club will regularly play when they visit the United States. This year, Roma is visiting Chicago, Boston and New York. While Roma is still trying to figure out the best way to go about international tours, there certainly is a possibility they return to Chicago on a regular basis in the future.

"I wouldn't rule that out for any stretch," Pannes said of making Chicago a regular destination. "It's so important when you become the new investors managing a business like a football club, that first couple years you have to do it. You have do these, you have to pull off the tour. We had our first open practice a couple days ago, and the key there was just doing it and learning from it, learning how you address those culture sensitivities, how you do things a little differently in the U.S. Here, the tour for us is a big learning experience."

Part of that learning experience may involve Roma's opponent Sunday. The club will travel to Fenway Park to face Liverpool July 25, after which they'll take on El Salvador's national team July 27 at Red Bull Arena in New York.
Zaglebie Lubin, though, doesn't register as a top opponent. The goal was to tap into Chicago's vibrant Polish community with a squad from Poland's top division, and one that has won a pair of championships in the last 25 years. But by points, Zaglebie Lubin is the 11th-most successful club in Ekstraklasa history. Major League Baseball's equivalent, by winning percentage, would be the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Still, Zaglebie Lubin's supporters section was fairly full, although not to the level of Roma's. The rumor, valid or not, was that Liverpool or fellow Premiership side Fulham were targeted to face Roma in the match. Had either made it, Roma would've taken on a storied English club or a side that features American soccer icon Clint Dempsey.

Bradley may not be at the level of Dempsey, Tim Howard or Landon Donovan, he's getting there. The American takeover of Roma didn't factor into their decision to sign Bradley, although the timing couldn't have been better at the outset of the club's U.S. tour.

"It's great, and it's very fortunate, but the mandate our football operations guys have is, here's a strategic plan, here's a budget, let's agree to the plan and then you guys build the best, most competitive squad you can," Pannes said. "Bradley was picked because he's an excellent player."

For Bradley, he was just happy to put on a Roma uniform -- although the setting made the experience a little more memorable.

"This is special for me," Bradley said. "Even if you took the Chicago and the Wrigley Field part out of it, for me to step on the field with Roma, it's something you dream of, especially when you throw in the fact that we're playing here in Chicago at Wrigley Field."

Roma is working to give themselves the chance to grow in popularity in the United States. An event like the one put on Saturday by the club and Cubs is part of that equation. Perhaps the analysis of the tour will yield return visits to Wrigley Field, where Chicagoans may not have to wait another 28 years to see a soccer match.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”