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Premier League the goal for Fire's Johnson

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Premier League the goal for Fire's Johnson

A year ago, Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson caught the eye of legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, making a handful of quality saves against the Red Devils in front of a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field.

On Saturday, Johnson didn't dress for the Fire's international friendly against Aston Villa as manager Frank Klopas wished to rest his banged-up keeper. But even though Johnson didn't get a chance to test himself against another English Premier League squad, chances are he'll get that opportunity in the future.

"I think every player aspires to be in the Premier League," Johnson said on Friday. "Every player wants to play at the top level and be with the best, so its definitely somewhere I think if my career goes where I want it to go, hopefully one day Ill end up there."

Johnson's teammates have his back in supporting his Premier League aspirations, and with good reason. The 23-year-old keeper has saved 76 percent of the shots he's faced this season, allowing an average of 1.14 goals per match, and his mates believe he still has plenty of room for growth.

"The skys the limit for Sean," midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "Its unbelievable how much hes developed in these last couple years. In the next year or two, if not right now, hes going to be a hot commodity somewhere."

Midfielder Chris Rolfe agreed.

"Everyone can see how talented he is and how athletically gifted he is," Rolfe explained. "But theres more to it with Sean. Hes very disciplined, hes very professional. For someone his age to be like that is, I think thats going to be the difference-maker.

"If playing in the Premier League is something he wants, I think if he puts his mind to it hes definitely capable of that."

The Premiership is home to a pair of first-team American keepers in Tim Howard (Everton) and Brad Friedel (Tottenham). Aston Villa's Brad Guzan, a native of Homer Glen, Ill., is currently locked in a battle with Ireland international Shay Given for the team's No. 1 goalkeeper job. If he wins it, he'll be the third.

Guzan re-signed with Villa only a few days ago, much to the applause of his teammates.

"Brad's always been a great keeper," midfielder Fabian Delph said after Saturday's match. "I've been at Villa three years now and as soon as I came, I remember thinking 'wow, what a keeper this guy is.' Obviously, we thought he was leaving at the end of the season and I was delighted to see him come back."

Of the nine United States expats playing in the Premiership, three are keepers. Seattle-born Marcus Hahnemann enjoyed an extensive career at England's top level, playing for Reading and Wolverhampton while those clubs enjoyed Premier League status. And fellow Washington native Kasey Keller had successful stints with Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur during his illustrious career.

Neither Delph nor Villa manager Paul Lambert could quite put their finger on why American keepers have had success in the Premier League, at least compared to their defender, midfielder and attacker counterparts. Maybe there's no answer to that question, but it has left many looking for the next great American keeper.

Friedel was with Villa for the beginning of Guzan's tenure in Birmingham, and Delph saw one Brad tutor another.

"It's a big deal for them to play in the Premier League and leave the country," Delph said. "I know Brad Friedel, and he's always been dedicated and the ultimate professional. Obviously the younger Brad working with him has rubbed off on him, and he's been exactly the same."

Perhaps there's something to the class of American goalkeepers working together and teaching one another. Johnson had that kind of learning experience last December during a one-week training session with Everton, where Howard has enjoyed considerable success.

"You realize when youre over there that youre training with the best of the best, and they have the best of the best from facilities to training sessions to everything around," Johnson said of his few days practicing with Everton. "The guys are top quality as well. So just being in that environment, youre able to raise your game and learn some things to bring back over to apply to the league here and make yourself a successful player here."

A few months after Johnson dazzled a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field for the Manchester United match, a bogus rumor circulated that United was going to bring Johnson in for a trial. While it was quickly de-bunked, the thought of Johnson donning a United jersey seemed at least plausible.

Ferguson and United already have their keeper of the future in Spaniard David De Gea. But there are 19 other clubs in the Premiership, and one of them may look to Chicago to get their hands on the next quality American goalkeeper.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: A sprained MCL and Trubisky's performance. vs the Pats

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: A sprained MCL and Trubisky's performance. vs the Pats

David Haugh, Jordan Cornette, Shae Peppler join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- Mark Schanowski joins SportsTalk Live to discuss Kris Dunn’s sprained MCL, Fred Hoiberg’s tough luck and Zach LaVine postgame criticisms of the coaching. Plus they’ll discuss another 0-3 team- LeBron’s Lakers.

20:00 – The panel discusses Mitchell Trubisky’s performance vs. the Patriots. Jordan makes the case that the media is giving the former No. 2 pick a pass.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Bulls bracing for a Kemba Walker onslaught

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USA TODAY

Bulls bracing for a Kemba Walker onslaught

Through the opening week of the NBA season, Hornets' All-Star point guard Kemba Walker and former Bull Niko Mirotic share the league scoring lead, averaging 33 points per game.

Bulls' fans have seen these hot stretches from Niko before, and chances are he'll start moving down to the mid to high-teens before long. But Walker is a big-time scorer who's quietly emerged as one of the most consistently productive point guards in a league loaded with stars at that position. He's averaged over 20 points and 5 assists in each of the last three seasons, making the Eastern Conference All-Star team twice.

Last season, Walker lit up the Bulls for 47 points in an overtime loss at the United Center in November, making some of the most difficult shots you can imagine to keep his team in the game. He seems to be as this best when facing the Bulls and you can bet Fred Hoiberg and his staff will pull out all the stops to try to slow him down, especially with defensive ace Kris Dunn out 4-6 weeks after suffering a sprained left MCL in his season debut on Monday.

The Hornets made some personnel changes since last season. The one-year experiment with Dwight Howard at center is over. Howard put up solid numbers for Charlotte a year ago, but didn't make much difference in the win-loss column, so he's moved on to Washington in his NBA odyssey. Cody Zeller is now the starting center, backed up by Bismack Biyombo and former Benet Academy and University of Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky.

Charlotte tried to improve the athleticism on their roster by selecting Malik Monk and Miles Bridges in the first rounds of the last two drafts. Monk is getting more playing time this season, averaging 13.5 points in the Hornets' first four games. Bridges is averaging just under 16 minutes a game as a backup to starting forwards Marvin Williams and Nic Batum. Just like he did at Michigan State, Bridges is providing those highlight reel putback dunks, but it remains to be seen whether he'll develop a consistent enough outside shot to be a quality starter in the NBA.

The well-traveled Jeremy Lamb is now starting in the backcourt with Walker, and the Hornets brought in long-time Spurs' point guard Tony Parker to add some much needed experience and veteran savvy off the bench. Given the current state of the Eastern Conference (post-LeBron), it's not out of the question for this group to contend for one of the final playoff spots.

Here's what the Bulls need to do for a shot at their first win of the season. This also applies to the rematch in Charlotte on Friday.

1. CORRAL KEMBA. For whatever reason, seeing that Bulls' logo turns Walker into an almost unstoppable scoring machine. Walker is adept at working off his big men, either in straight pick and rolls or cutting through the post on give-and-go plays. He's one of the league's most creative scorers, and doesn't require much room to get his shot off. The Bulls' bigs will have to provide help on Walker whenever he comes off screens to keep him from taking over the game.

2. PUT THE BALL IN ZACH'S HANDS. Whether he's playing shooting guard or point guard, Zach LaVine needs to be the primary facilitator with Dunn sidelined. LaVine scored 34 points against Dallas Monday night on just 15 shots, which led to him questioning some of the offensive sets that were run in the 2nd half. LaVine told reporters on Tuesday that he smoothed things over with his head coach, explaining his comments were the result of the frustration he was feeling after a third-straight loss to open the season. Still, LaVine is on a major hot streak, joining Bulls' all-time greats Michael Jordan and Bob Love as the only players to start the year with three straight games scoring at least 30 points. The Bulls will need to ride that hot hand for as far as LaVine can carry them.

3. DEFEND THE 3-POINT LINE. You knew I would eventually get to this, right? Dallas made 15 of 47 3-point attempts on Monday after the Pistons knocked down 18 of 40 in a two-point win last Saturday. The Hornets have all kinds of capable 3-point shooters in Walker, Lamb, Monk, Batum and Williams (they're shooting .397 as a team on 3's), so guarding the arc will be crucial for the Bulls to have a chance at their first win.

Don’t forget you can catch Wednesday's game on NBC Sports Chicago and the new MyTeams by NBC sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 pm when Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and Kelly Crull join me for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium. Neil Funk and Stacey King have the play-by-play call at 7 pm, then stay tuned after the final buzzer for Bulls Postgame Live and the always entertaining Bulls Outsiders.