Fire

Daniel Johnson went on a winding journey to become the Fire's first pick

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USA TODAY

Daniel Johnson went on a winding journey to become the Fire's first pick

Daniel Johnson’s path to first round pick in Major League Soccer has taken a number of different paths.

It all led to Johnson being selected by the Chicago Fire with the No. 11 pick in Friday’s draft. As Johnson himself said, not many players have an easy path to the pros, but his youth career had a number of key turns.

For starters, Johnson headed to England at 13 years old to train in Premier League team West Ham United’s academy. He spent three years and a half years there, but had to come back to America after work visa issues ended his tenure there. (One of the noticeable things he held onto from his time in England is the way he says Premier League like the English with the short e in the word premier.)

Coaches at West Ham compared him to Joe Cole, who came up with West Ham and had 56 caps with the English national team.

“I learned so much about myself when I went over at 13," Johnson said. "I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did about myself off the field. I was over without parents and had to mature at an alarming rate really to survive and be successful. On the field, it was incredible being in that sort of environment and learn everyday being around pros. Being really a young pro because that’s what it takes to make it there.”

Being a young American in a well-respected Premier League academy and being compared to an English national team player gave Johnson a huge confidence boost. When he had to leave the club, it was a huge setback.

“I felt like I was successful over there and maybe was on track to have that sort of impact or have that sort of opportunity in the Premier League,” Johnson said. “Having that opportunity sort of taken away from me by factors outside of my ability on the field was devastating, honestly. That experience and dealing with that adversity taught me so much about how I deal with adversity and that everyone has a different path to their goals.”

[MORE DRAFT COVERAGE: Fire trade No. 3 pick to New York City FC]

When it came time for Johnson to pick a college to continue his career, he was now out of the loop. Johnson by his own admission knew “next to nothing” about college soccer, but was being recruited by Division I programs.

His dad was a baseball player at Maryland and his dad’s father also went to Maryland so that became the first school he visited. Johnson knew it was one of the top programs in the country. He met with coach Sasho Cirovski and committed early on.

In two years at Maryland he made just one start, struggling for time on talented teams. Maryland made the national championship game in Johnson’s freshman year in 2013 and won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles in his sophomore year.

“He got stuck with a glut of midfielders,” Cirovski said on the league’s draft day broadcast. “Maybe he was a little young. We had some key guys in the midfield. (Current Toronto FC midfielder) Tsubasa Endoh in there and guys that played his position so he couldn’t get up there. We supported his decision to find a new place and he revitalized his career at Louisville.”

Johnson transferred to Louisville, but didn’t hold a grudge. When Johnson stood on the podium at the draft after being selected by the Fire he thanked both Maryland and Louisville.

“I wish I had done a little more research, but it was just a case of me not fitting into the system and a combination of different philosophies that Sasho and I had,” Johnson said. “We had a good relationship, but during my time there we were a really successful program so it’s really hard to make a case for changes, especially someone who is going to come in and really change your style when you’re being successful playing one way.”

Johnson got connected with coach Ken Lolla at Louisville, who Johnson said was focused on development. In two years with the Cardinals, he started all 41 matches and emerged as a pro prospect.

Earlier in his career Johnson had been a central attacking midfielder, calling himself a “10.” Lolla had him play out wide at Louisville. He said it’s been a learning curve to adjust to the position the past two years, but has become comfortable as a winger. His preferred spot is to play on the left wing and cut inside as a right-footed player, but he’s still learning to play both sides.

“I’m comfortable on the wing, playing more of an inverted winger on the left, but also being able to do some of the things that a more traditional winger does if I’m deployed on the right,” Johnson said. “Still working on my left foot and being able to provide those things on the left.”

[MORE DRAFT COVERAGE: Fire trade into second round to make two picks]

Johnson was a stand out at the combine, especially in the first game of the combine. Johnson drew and converted a penalty kick and had two assists in the first half. His draft stock seemed to soar in the week leading up to the draft. The attention Johnson was getting from around the league certainly went up, although general manager Nelson Rodriguez said the Fire had watched Johnson the past two years at Louisville.

“I think a product of combine performance I met with 20 teams so on Wednesday I started at 8 a.m. and skipped both breakfast and lunch and dinner,” Johnson said. “In the meeting process I think the longest time between meetings I had was 15 minutes so they ended up blurring together. Calling my mom that night and sort of giving her the update there were a few teams that stuck out, but Chicago was one that I remembered from the entire meeting.”

Johnson said it was his longest interview of the day.

“He has certain qualities that we think are different from the qualities that we have within the team right now,” Rodriguez said. “We think he can also slide inside and play a central role because he’s good on the ball and he’s a good decision maker.

“He has a real reverence for the game. He’s very descriptive in how he appreciates the game and the artistry of the game.”

Johnson’s winding journey has included two continents and two colleges. He thinks his background and skillset make him rare among young Americans.

“I feel like I am a unique case in terms of young American attacking players, especially being a product of an academy like West Ham and having unique training,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited to just get started and show what I can do.”

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

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NBC Sports Chicago

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

Manchester City is coming off a season in which it dominated the English Premier League to the tune of a record 100-point season.

City is kicking off the preseason of its title defense in Chicago. City takes on Borussia Dortmund at Soldier Field on Friday night.

The last time the reigning Premier League champions were in Chicago was when rivals Manchester United came to Soldier to take on the Chicago Fire in 2011.

The Citizens won’t have the full arsenal of stacked stars for its U.S. tour, which also includes stops in New York and Miami as part of the International Champions Cup. Many of the team’s best players are getting a break after playing in the World Cup. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, one of the stars of the tournament, is one of six Man City players to reach the semifinals.

Paul Dickov, who played for City for nearly 10 years between 1996 and 2008, is on tour with the team and talked about City’s preparations.

“The reason the clubs want to come to the States and play in International Champions Cup is the facilities are fantastic, the training facilities, the hotels, the treatment they get and just give them the best preparation going into what’s going to be a hard season,” Dickov said. “Nobody has won the Premier League back-to-back titles for nearly 10 years now so it’s going to be tough. Coming here and being able to prepare the way they can in the United States is going to put them on a long way to regain the title again.”

City brought the Premier League trophy to Wrigley Field on Thursday for the Cubs-Cardinals game. Dickov got to throw out the first pitch. The Scotsman threw a strike, much to his relief.

“I was quite calm beforehand, but I must admit when I got out there and I had to walk out there both hands started getting a bit sweaty,” he said. “I managed to make it and I got a fantastic reception off the Chicago Cubs fans so thank you to everybody at Chicago Cubs for having me there. It was great. Something I’ll never forget.”


Dickov compared Cubs fans to City fans in the way both teams struggled for a long time before finding success.

“They stuck by us through thick and thin when things weren’t as great,” Dickov said of Man City fans. “I suppose it’s a little bit like the Chicago Cubs here in Chicago. The fans turn out, they get 30-40 thousand, great atmosphere, back their team.”

While promoting the game, the Premier League trophy made multiple stops in Chicago, including with the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on an off day.

City also took the trophy and new signing Riyad Mahrez, who just joined Man City from 2016 champions Leicester City, to Haas Park in Logan Square. Haas Park includes a soccer field donated by Manchester City and the American embassy of the United Arab Emirates in 2012.

“The outcome of it has been great,” Dickov said. “Thousands of children and families benefiting, not just from the soccer part of it, but the education program as well. To be down there the other day for the full day and seeing the joy in the kids face seeing soccer here and the other activities that are on is great because, yeah, football is fantastic, soccer is fantastic and when you’re out there and you play you want to win, but it’s important, especially from Manchester City’s point of view, the city and the community. The stuff that they do off the field is second to none and it’s giving something back.”

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

The Fire have secured the transfer of midfielder Aleksandar Katai from Deportivo Alavés of the Spanish La Liga, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

This season’s breakout playmaker has been signed with Chicago through 2019, with a 2020 club option. Before the transfer, Katai was on loan from Alavés, which was set to expire after July.

The Serbian player has emerged as one of the most important pieces of the Fire’s offense this season. Since joining the club on Feb. 6, Katai has scored eight goals in 18 league matches, tying forward Nemanja Nikolić for the most on the team. Katai also has three assists in 2018.

The 27-year-old’s biggest game of the year came against New York City FC last month when he scored two goals to lead the Fire to 3-2 victory. His production this season in the MLS has been much more significant than it was in 23 matches with Alavés, where Katai only tallied three goals and four assists.

His transfer fee is unknown but, according to Sam Stejskal of MLSsoccer.com, he will be a “Targeted Allocation Money player” for the rest of this season and will not be a Designated Player until 2019. Whatever the official price was, acquiring Katai for a lengthier amount of time seemed like a must.

Throughout this season, the Fire were rumored to be in talks with legendary Spanish striker Fernando Torres. On Tuesday, he signed with Sagan Tosu, a Japanese club. The Fire signed Katai the next day, showing that the team was possibly waiting for Torres to leave the market.

Chicago will face the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night at Toyota Park, where Katai will look to continue his impressive season.