Fire

Red Stars enter 2017 season hoping to get past semifinal barrier

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Chicago Red Stars | Annex | @multimarz

Red Stars enter 2017 season hoping to get past semifinal barrier

For each of the past two seasons the Chicago Red Stars have been knocked out in the National Women's Soccer League's semifinals.

Instead of reinforcing the team with a number of new players in the hopes of upgrading the roster, the Red Stars are staying the course, hoping what was a young team last year can improve without many changes. Of the Red Stars' 20-player roster, 17 players are back from last season and four are U.S. national teamers (Christen Press, Julie Ertz (Johnston), Alyssa Naeher and Casey Short). Naeher, who turns 29 on April 20, is the oldest player on the team.

The Red Stars unveiled new jerseys and new branding for the season, which starts Saturday at Houston with the home opener a week later at Toyota Park.

Getting past the semifinals

In 2015, the Red Stars hosted a semifinal against FC Kansas City, but exited in unceremonious fashion with a 3-0 loss. Last year the Red Stars fell at the Washington Spirit 2-1 in extra time.

"It's definitely disappointing to come away with a loss in the semifinal and I think that we have the experience of playing in those semifinals and it's a lot of the same players," midfielder Danielle Colaprico said. "I think this is the year where we can really push to the final and hopefully win it."

Name change for a big name player

As a starter on the 2015 World Cup-winning national team Julie Johnston's name has some recognition. She is now going by Julie Ertz after getting married to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz in late March.

"Having Johnston for 25 years of my life was such a huge part of me," Ertz said. "It's pretty cool to have Zach also be a professional athlete and I think having that last name together it's kind of a football, football kind of connection that we have. He's been there since I started my professional career and same with him as well. We've grown on and off the field together. I know it means a lot to him, as much as it does to me, and showing our marriage to become one."

National team quartet

The Red Stars have four players listed as allocated national teamers for the upcoming season. Only Portland, with five, has more. Press, Ertz and Naeher were all on the 2015 World Cup team. Defender Casey Short joined the list of allocated national teamers this year, having become a regular since the new cycle began after the Olympics.

"She got to go against typical national team players, especially on her side as a left back, and she's been great," Ertz said of Short. "She's learned and grown in any role that (coach) Rory (Dames) had her play, that the team had her play. She's loving it. She's doing great so we're just proud of her."

Returning core

The Red Stars bring back 10 of the 11 starters from the semifinal loss at Washington, including leading goal scorers Press (8 goals) and Sofia Huerta (7 goals) and assist leader Vanessa DiBernardo (7 assists). Press and defender Arin Gilliland were named to the league's Best XI while Naeher, Ertz, Short, Colaprico and DiBernardo were named to the second team.

"I think in years past our team actually overperformed for what we had," Press said. "I think we're really proud of that and going into this season I think the group is so much more solid and for us it's very much in our goal and in our realm and reason to win a championship this season."

Press isn't alone in this view. NWSL Media voted the Red Stars as the top ranked team entering the season.


Newcomers

With so many players back there aren't many newcomers. Three players are new: draft picks Morgan Proffitt and Lauren Kaskie, both midfielders, and forward Summer Green.

Green, a former U.S. youth national team player, impressed the Red Stars this preseason to earn a roster spot. She was drafted by Seattle last year, but sat out the year with a knee injury, which kept her out for nine months.

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.