Cubs

Johnson returns to Fire, but won't play Sunday

717214.png

Johnson returns to Fire, but won't play Sunday

The Fires 1-0-1 record after two games is the same as last years at the same point in the season, but one thing is certainly different: the Fire has much more depth in Frank Klopas first full season as head coach than it did when Carlos de los Cobos was in charge for the dismal start to the 2011 campaign.

Why else would Klopas hold out his top goalkeeper and most experienced defender for the third league match of the season?

Sean Johnson, who finished up a tour of duty with the U.S. under-23 team in the Olympic qualifying tournament on Monday in Nashville, has rejoined his club team and Arne Friedrich, a veteran of Germanys World Cup squads, went through Thursdays training session as well.

Neither, though, are expected to play in Sundays Major League Soccer road match against the Colorado Rapids. Klopas doesnt feel either are ready, though he didnt flat rule out Johnson.

While Johnson is widely recognized as one of the best young goalkeepers in the U.S. and spent a fruitful offseason experience-wise, he hasnt had much match time lately. That can be corrected in the next two weeks.

Johnson, 22, had seven shutouts in 28 matches last season. His play on a teams that struggled for 44 games over two seasons under de los Cobos but finished 2011 strong under Klopas, earned him some extra opportunities. Johnson earned his first cap with the U.S. national team, playing the second half of a 1-1 draw against Chile in January, 2011.

After the '11 MLS season he was invited to 12 days of training with Everton of the English Premier League, where he worked with U.S. national team mainstay Tim Howard. Johnson then joined the U.S. under-23s for their failed bid to qualify for the Olympics. Those opportunities caused Johnson to miss much of preseason training and the Fires first two MLS matches.

The Olympic experience was all good.

Bill Hamid, the D.C. United goalkeeper, earned the nod over Johnson when U.S. under-23 coach Caleb Porter lined up his squad for the Olympic qualifying tournament. Hamid was in goal for a 6-0 win over Cuba and a 2-0 loss to Canada, the U.S. teams first loss to the neighbors to the north in 20 years. He also allowed two goals before leaving the third match of group play against El Salvador on Monday.

The U.S. needed to protect a 3-2 lead, and Johnson came in and made some saves after entering the match in the 39th minute. A win would send the U.S. into the semifinals, while El Salvador needed only a draw to advance. The Salvadorans got it when Johnson got his hand on a bouncing shot in the final seconds of stoppage time but couldnt keep the ball from trickling into the net.

"Obviously it was a disappointing result but, results aside, training with those guys -- the best of the best -- was great," said Johnson. "With Everton, it was different. Theyre in the top league in the world, and their practice facilities in Liverpool are massive. Everything was first class, and it was a valuable experience seeing how they operate over there."

Playing in Europe as well as performing in an Olympic atmosphere delayed, but didnt spoil, Johnson for the start of his third season with the Fire.

"It was a busy offseason, and now its time to take that into whats going on now," he said. "Chicagos my home, and all that (offseason stuff) was great, but now its time to look forward and get on with the season."

Because of his lack of match time Klopas is expected to delay Johnsons return to the Fire lineup until April 15, when the Houston Dynamo come to Toyota Park. Thats when Friedrich will likely make his Fire debut as well.

"This is a team, and weve got to manage all these difference personalities," said Klopas. "Its a tough decision, managing whos on the field, but weve got to deal with those situations."

Johnson wants to play right away.

"Im ready to go. Its just a matter of the coachs decision, whether its this game or later on," said Johnson.

Klopas is also influenced by what went on while Johnson was away. Paolo Tornaghi, a 23-year old Italian, played well in the first two games and apparently will get a third straight start. Plus, the more experienced Jay Nolly, earned a shutout in the first reserve team match of the season and hes available, too. The three keepers provide the Fire with the most solid netminding in the franchises 15-year history.

"Seans No. 1, but we brought in Jay because hes a veteran, experienced guy and we knew there was a possibility of Sean being away with Olympic qualifying," said Klopas. "Its been a healthy competition, and thats one thing we wanted to create -- depth at every position."

Therell be some reserve team matches, plus a friendly with a minor league club from Louisville, before Houston becomes the fourth MLS opponent, so Johnson can get some live matches under his belt before returning to the MLS wars.

Thats the thinking with defender Friedrich, too, though an injury to right back Dan Gargan could impact on Fredreichs immediate impact on the Fire. Gargan jogged during Thursdays training session and his availability might be a game-time decision at Colorado. At any rate, Klopas prefers to wait on Friedrich until his fitness has improved. He doesnt want any injuries that might be avoided through cautious coaching.

"With him its just fitness, and hes getting better with that each day," said Klopas. "After (Sundays game) weve got a break, and weve got to be smart and careful. Its a long season."

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

5-27dionsims.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

Dion Sims is still here, which is the outcome he expected but perhaps wasn’t a slam dunk — at least to those outside the walls at Halas Hall. 

The Bears could’ve cut ties with Sims prior to March 16 and saved $5.666 million against the cap, quite a figure for a guy coming off a disappointing 2017 season (15 catches, 180 yards, one touchdown). But the Bears are sticking with Sims, even after splashing eight figures to land Trey Burton in free agency earlier this year. 

“In my mind, I thought I was coming back,” Sims said. “I signed to be here three years and that’s what I expect. But I understand how things go and my job is come out here and work hard every day and play with a chip on my shoulder to prove myself and just be a team guy.”

The Bears signed Sims to that three-year, $18 million contract 14 months ago viewing him as a rock-solid blocking tight end with some receiving upside. The receiving upside never materialized, and his blocking was uneven at times as the Bears’ offense slogged through a bleak 11-loss season. 

“The situation we were in, we weren’t — we could’ve done a better job of being successful,” Sims said. “Things didn’t go how we thought it would. We just had to pretty much try to figure out how to come together and build momentum into coming into this year. I just think there were a lot of things we could have done, but because of the circumstances we were limited a little bit. 

“… It was a lot of things going on. Guys hurt, situations — it was tough for us. We couldn’t figure it out, along with losing, that was a big part of it too.”

Sims will be given a fresh start in 2018, even as Adam Shaheen will be expected to compete to cut into Sims’ playing time at the “Y” tight end position this year. The other side of that thought: Shaheen won’t necessarily slide into being the Bears’ primary in-line tight end this year. 

Sims averaged 23 receptions, 222 yards and two touchdowns from 2014-2016; that might be a good starting point for his 2018 numbers, even if it would represent an improvement from 2017. More important, perhaps, is what Sims does as a run blocker — and that was the first thing Nagy mentioned when talking about how Sims fits into his offense. 

“The nice thing with Dion is that he’s a guy that’s proven to be a solid blocker,” Nagy said. “He can be in there and be your Y-tight end, but yet he still has really good hands. He can make plays on intermediate routes. He’s not going to be anybody that’s a downfield threat — I think he knows that, we all know that — but he’s a valuable piece of this puzzle.”