Cubs

Can Mather repeat in soccer?

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Can Mather repeat in soccer?

Mather soccer coach Branko Cvijovic is still reveling in the aftermath of his team's monumental victory in the Class 2A championship in November. And he can't help but think about what the only Chicago Public League winner since 1973 can do for an encore in 2012.

"I love the feeling at the end of the season to see everybody is still there," Cvijovic said. "You start in the heat in August and end in the cold and wind in October. You look around and see they still are around and it's a good feeling. They are healthy and have fun and if they accomplish something, that's a bonus."

Cvijovic, 50, grew up playing soccer in his native Montenegro. He played for an organized club, a second-tier team, and always felt he could coach the game he loved better than he could play it. After he came to the United States in 1989, he got an opportunity to prove he was right.

He arrived at Mather on Chicago's North Side 10 years ago. He coached the frosh-soph team to the city title in 2002 and guided the junior varsity to the city final in 2004. This year, he was named head coach of the varsity. From the first day of practice, he had a different approach.

"Everywhere else but here, in this country, the core of the game is to have fun, to let everyone have an individual style but to not hurt the team concept, especially at the amateur level. In high school, you aren't paid to play. You should do it for fun," Cvijovic said.

"I don't know if it is fun here but the approach in different sports is to play to win as opposed to having fun. There is too much pressure from coaches and parents. You even see it at the national level.

"My philosophy? I love to see the technical ability of the player. Let him do what he might not have an opportunity to do. Dedicate some time during practice for free time, fun time. Let them play and enjoy the game. That's my style -- let them play and have fun, even if it isn't practical. Let them enjoy the game."

Mather's drive to the school's first state championship in any sport is a feel-good story, a first-year coach molding the attitudes and styles and personalities of teenagers from five continents and nine nationalities into a cohesive unit that came together in a relative short period of time.

The 21-member squad, which included players from Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bosnia and Mexico, started on Aug. 10 and only missed two practices in three months. A dozen played on last year's team that lost to Maine West in a Class 3A sectional final.

"From day one I believed there was great potential," Cvijovic said. "That's why I took the job. They need to work hard and come to practice and enjoy the game. But we are here to achieve great things.

"I saw them play last year when I wasn't coaching. I saw they had great talent. I saw a blend of styles and talent and stuff I enjoyed watching. I inherited a great team but I had to work hard to get them to believe in themselves and to develop team spirit and team cohesiveness. That's what they lacked last year. They didn't play together. They didn't know each other, being from five continents. They didn't know how to blend their styles and strengths. There was too much individualism.

"I wanted all of them to know that we shouldn't be happy with small things, that we are capable of doing great things. I didn't mention state but, deep down, I felt we could win state."

Mission accomplished. The Rangers, led by senior Qudus Lawal, crushed Chatham Glenwood 6-0 to win the state title and complete a 21-3-1 season. Lawal, the lone Public League selection on the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area team and one of five Nigerians on the team, scored a record four goals in the final, including three in the second half (two within a span of 17 seconds) as Mather broke away from a 1-0 halftime lead. He finished with 41 goals for the season.

"Skill-wise, I wouldn't be surprised if Lawal plays professionally," Cvijovic told veteran Chicago newspaper reporter John Montgomery. "I've never seen anybody use his body on a soccer field as well as he does to make the plays (to score goals). He is a skilled player. It's hard to guard him on the field. You have to have more than just skill."

In a recent EastWest all-star game in Birmingham, Alabama, Lawal scored two goals and assisted on a third as his West team won 3-2.

"He is one of the five best players in the country. And nobody knew about him until this year. In three months, he achieved it all. He became the best player in the state, the player of the year," Cvijovic said. "He wants to go to college. He has so many offers. He is a very good and very unorthodox player. You can't tell until you see him play the game and what he produces."

So what about next year? Lawal and seven other starters will graduate. Only three starters will return.

Cvijovic said junior Kenan Alihodzic, a Bosnian, will be next year's leader. An outstanding defender and very mature, he played centerforward as a freshman. "He has great potential," the coach said.

The other returning starters are junior Godman Eseh, a centermidfielder from Nigeria, and sophomore goalie Edwin Vazquez, a Mexican who had a hand in the team's nine shutouts in 2011.

Much is expected from Mahdi Mahdi, a centermidfielder who was the only freshman on the varsity last season, and sophomore Andres Torrez. "Both have potential to be very good players," Cvijovic said.

"We will be competitive but we won't be as good (as this year)," Cvijovic said. "It will be more of a challenge next year. Everyone wants to play us. We have a target on our backs. There will be more pressure on our team.

"But not much was expected of us last season, especially from a city team in the state tournament. We made a name for ourselves. Now suburban teams will have more respect for us. In the past, suburban and Downstate teams wanted to play city teams because they didn't think we were good enough. And we lost 10-0 and 11-0. It was a great lesson for our kids to see what organized soccer is."

Cubs announce plans for extended protective netting at Wrigley Field for 2020

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USA TODAY

Cubs announce plans for extended protective netting at Wrigley Field for 2020

Baseball fans will be more protected than ever at Wrigley Field this season.

Saturday, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney announced the club is extending protective netting at Wrigley Field to the elbows of the ballpark. Essentially, it will stretch a bit past where the old on-field bullpens were and stop before the walls in the left and right field corners.

Kenney added the extensions will be ready by Opening Day.

Last month, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced all 30 ballparks will extend their netting for the 2020 season. Manfred didn’t specify which teams would do what, but he said netting at each stadium would extend “substantially beyond the end of the dugout.”

With pitchers throwing harder than ever and batter exit velocities are through the roof, fans have little time to react in the stands when a ball is launched their way. It’s nearly impossible to avoid getting hit, even for those paying attention.

The Cubs have experienced this firsthand. In a game against the Astros last season, an Albert Almora Jr. foul ball struck a 2-year-old at Minute Maid Park. That young girl has a permanent brain injury, her family’s attorney announced earlier this month, an injury that affects her body similar to how a stroke would.

Almora was visibly shaken after the incident and said Friday at Cubs Convention it weighed heavily on him for the first couple of days.

“After that I had no other choice but to move forward,” Almora said. “But I always have that in the back of my mind. Every update that does come up, I am on there and I am seeing all of this."

Almora said he’s tried reaching out to the family but is respecting their privacy. As a father of two himself, he said there’s no reason to even think of his sons getting hurt while attending a game.

“Obviously prayers go out to the family. It’s unfortunate, and like I said before, that should never happen on a baseball field."

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Insanity, the elephant in the room and the 2020 Cubs

Insanity, the elephant in the room and the 2020 Cubs

Year-in and year-out, one of the most entertaining parts of Cubs Convention is the fan questions. 

Whether posed by children to Anthony Rizzo and his teammates at the Kids Only Presser or hard-hitting questions to Theo Epstein and the coaching staff, fans never cease to entertain when they get their opportunity on the mic.

That continued Saturday morning when a fan got up to ask Epstein a question halfway through his Baseball Operations panel and started innocently by thanking the front office for the 2016 World Series championship. It then delved into the fan stating his belief that the Cubs have regressed in the seasons since, particularly on offense.

"It's been written," the fan continued, "that the definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet we're probably gonna have a very similar lineup this year to what we had last year. Can you articulate what we should expect differently and why we should get different results from that?"

The fan was alluding to the "status quo" on the Cubs roster that is becoming more and more of a reality as the start of spring training draws near. To date, the Cubs have not guaranteed a single dollar on a big-league contract in free agency and they also have not traded from their core of players or worked out an extension with anybody from the same group.

The 2019 Cubs won only 84 games and were essentially eliminated from playoffs with a week left in the regular season. It led to sweeping changes on the coaching staff — including the departure of manager Joe Maddon — and every other behind-the-scenes department within the franchise. However, the game is ultimately won and lost on the field by the players and that group has hardly changed apart from the guys the Cubs have lost to free agency (a group led by Cole Hamels and Steve Cishek and potentially Nicholas Castellanos) and via trade (Tony Kemp).

"Great question," Epstein said in response to the fan. "Well, first of all, it's not Opening day yet, so I think there's still a chance of some changes. We hope there will be. This is an offseason where we knew we were gonna be more active in trades than free agency, but the bottom line is: words don't matter, actions do. But the fact that we haven't been active yet makes that a very valid question."

Epstein then launched into a long-winded answer quoting himself on how development isn't linear, and used the up-and-down career Ian Happ has had to date. The Cubs believe there is more in the tank for a guy like Happ, who barely contributed in 2019 while spending the first four months of the season making adjustments in Triple-A Iowa.

Kyle Schwarber was another example Epstein pointed out, referencing the changes the left-handed slugger made that led to a monster second half of the season.

"I agree with you," Epstein went on. "I think, objectively speaking, we should be adding to this team and doing everything we can to make it better. There are some obstacles we're trying to fight through in that regard. But don't give up on the players that have been here that might've driven you insane at times watching them, because I really think a lot of them are on an upward trajectory and will make us proud this year."

About 15 minutes later in the same session Saturday morning, another fan asked Epstein to speak as candidly as he could about the payroll issues facing the Cubs. 

The president of baseball operations admitted he is trying to be as transparent as possible, but isn't able to go into exact detail on the payroll because it puts the Cubs in a compromised position as they negotiate with agents in the open market and other teams on the trade front.

At the moment, the Cubs are projected for a roster that will go slightly over the $208 million luxury tax threshold for the second straight season.

"Clearly how we position ourselves relative to the collective bargaining tax and the impact of going over multiple years in a row and the effects of that long term is a factor in the offseason," Epstein said. "It's one of those obstacles that we talked about that we have to find a way to navigate around.

"But I'm gonna be honest and self-critical — if we had done our jobs a lot better the last couple years, those some obstacles might be there, but they wouldn't be as pressing and we'd have a little bit more flexibility."

For example, the Tyler Chatwood contract hasn't really worked out for the Cubs to date. He's owed $13 million in 2020 and while he had a resurgent season last year, that's still a lot of money for a guy who may not even be ticketed for the rotation this summer.

Same with Craig Kimbrel. In early June when the Cubs signed the dynamic closer, it looked like a no-brainer addition to shore up the weakest part of the roster — not only for 2019, but for the next two years after. Now, after a half season that was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, Kimbrel is on the books for $16 million in 2020 and yet comes with plenty of question marks.

If the Cubs didn't make those two deals, they'd have two more holes on the pitching staff, but also a lot more financial flexibility to fill those spots. It also speaks to the lack of pitching development under Epstein's regime, which has forced the front office to continually devote a lot of resources into signing pitchers instead of supplementing the staff with homegrown arms.

Couple the money issues with the fact the projected roster has lost a lot of talent from the end of last season and the nearing free agency for the likes of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and Epstein's front office has been left in a spot this winter where they have to "serve three masters," as he put it Saturday. 

They're still trying to contend in 2020, but they don't want to put themselves in a further bind financially and they'd ideally add pieces that would help the team both in the short-term and the long-term. That includes patience on the trade market as they wait for another team to come closer to their asking price on Bryant or any of the other available players.

None of it is what the fans want to hear, but it's the reality of the situation the Cubs find themselves in.

"This is one of those winters where it's really hard to thread the needle," Epstein said. "We're doing the best we can. I would say to hang with us and hopefully by the time Opening Day rolls around, we've improved the 2020 team and we've done some things that maybe don't improve the '20 team, but ensures a better future. And then to our bosses and for our future, we've also done a responsible job financially to set ourselves up for long-term fiscal health."