Bears

Wrigley Field transforms for soccer, American-led AS Roma

823485.png

Wrigley Field transforms for soccer, American-led AS Roma

Michael Bradley resided in Palatine during his high school years, honing his craft in the Chicago-area youth soccer circuit while his dad, Bob, coached the Fire. He never made it to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game while living in the area.

This weekend, Bradley finally made it to the Friendly Confines, but not for baseball. The U.S. international midfielder not only made his debut for powerful Italian club AS Roma on Sunday, but he also experienced his first game at the storied ballpark.

"Beautiful," Bradley said of Wrigley Field prior to Roma's 4-0 win over Zaglebie Lubin Sunday. "You see right away how much history is inside here. I think for our team, for our players, you sensed right away you're in a special place."

The infield dirt was covered in sod and the pitcher's mound and batters box were gone, replaced by patches of green grass. Soccer balls bounced off the ivy like sure-fire doubles. Bradley patrolled areas of the field usually reserved for Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro. The crowd let out roars for Roma's four goals like Anthony Rizzo had pelted Sheffield Ave. with a home run.

It had been 28 years since soccer was last played at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Sting took the pitch at that time, averaging under 9,000 fans in 1984, their final outdoor season. On Sunday, 22,181 fans watched the match from the stands at Wrigley Field.

AS Roma isn't a giant in Italian's Serie A, at least not comparatively. They're not AC Milan, Internazionale, or Juventes. But they're hoping to get to that level, and success in the Americas is a big part of that plan.

The club was purchased by a group led by American Thomas R. DiBenedetto, a member of the Fenway Sports Group, which also owns the Boston Red Sox and storied English Premier League club Liverpool.

Chief executive officer Mark Pannes, a native of Boston, has an ambitious vision of Roma's place in the United States. The club signed a seven-year deal with Disney that will have their first-team players train at the Wide World of Sports complex in Florida every year, and they plan on bringing the club to the United States for pre-season friendlies every other year.

"It makes us authentic in the U.S. in a way -- for years, clubs used to come to the U.S. with a smash-and-grab mentality where they would tour through a city once every four or five years, or even the country once every four of five years and do it just for appearance fees," Pannes explained. "And that's not the case with us. We have a very long-term vision of being hopefully the most popular club in the U.S."

A goal for Pannes and the business side of Roma is to find so-called anchor cities, where the club will regularly play when they visit the United States. This year, Roma is visiting Chicago, Boston and New York. While Roma is still trying to figure out the best way to go about international tours, there certainly is a possibility they return to Chicago on a regular basis in the future.

"I wouldn't rule that out for any stretch," Pannes said of making Chicago a regular destination. "It's so important when you become the new investors managing a business like a football club, that first couple years you have to do it. You have do these, you have to pull off the tour. We had our first open practice a couple days ago, and the key there was just doing it and learning from it, learning how you address those culture sensitivities, how you do things a little differently in the U.S. Here, the tour for us is a big learning experience."

Part of that learning experience may involve Roma's opponent Sunday. The club will travel to Fenway Park to face Liverpool July 25, after which they'll take on El Salvador's national team July 27 at Red Bull Arena in New York.
Zaglebie Lubin, though, doesn't register as a top opponent. The goal was to tap into Chicago's vibrant Polish community with a squad from Poland's top division, and one that has won a pair of championships in the last 25 years. But by points, Zaglebie Lubin is the 11th-most successful club in Ekstraklasa history. Major League Baseball's equivalent, by winning percentage, would be the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Still, Zaglebie Lubin's supporters section was fairly full, although not to the level of Roma's. The rumor, valid or not, was that Liverpool or fellow Premiership side Fulham were targeted to face Roma in the match. Had either made it, Roma would've taken on a storied English club or a side that features American soccer icon Clint Dempsey.

Bradley may not be at the level of Dempsey, Tim Howard or Landon Donovan, he's getting there. The American takeover of Roma didn't factor into their decision to sign Bradley, although the timing couldn't have been better at the outset of the club's U.S. tour.

"It's great, and it's very fortunate, but the mandate our football operations guys have is, here's a strategic plan, here's a budget, let's agree to the plan and then you guys build the best, most competitive squad you can," Pannes said. "Bradley was picked because he's an excellent player."

For Bradley, he was just happy to put on a Roma uniform -- although the setting made the experience a little more memorable.

"This is special for me," Bradley said. "Even if you took the Chicago and the Wrigley Field part out of it, for me to step on the field with Roma, it's something you dream of, especially when you throw in the fact that we're playing here in Chicago at Wrigley Field."

Roma is working to give themselves the chance to grow in popularity in the United States. An event like the one put on Saturday by the club and Cubs is part of that equation. Perhaps the analysis of the tour will yield return visits to Wrigley Field, where Chicagoans may not have to wait another 28 years to see a soccer match.

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner. 

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

1019_matt_davidson.jpg
USA TODAY

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

This season, Matt Davidson became the fourth player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a season opener. It definitely raised a few eyebrows, especially after Paul Konerko noted during spring training that a 40-home run season and an All-Star selection isn’t out of the question for the California native. After clobbering nine home runs (seven of them coming at Kauffman Stadium) in his first 21 games, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way, though he did rack up his second straight 20-homer season. But it’s hard to argue that 2018 wasn’t a success for Davidson — mostly because of the swings he didn’t make.

Everything else aside, Davidson walked as often as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in 2018.

OK, the more meaningful comparison would be Davidson to himself.

What stands out is his walk rate. One hundred fifty three players had at least 400 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018. Among them, Davidson had the second-highest increase in walk percentage this past season.

Consider this: In 2017, Davidson and Tim Anderson became (and still are) the only players in MLB history with 160-plus strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks in a season.

Davidson, while logging 20 more at-bats in 2018, had the same number of strikeouts, 165, but he increased his walk total from 19 to 52. Give him credit for that. It’s a tough adjustment to make at the minor league level let alone in the major leagues. The increased walk rate brought his on-base percentage from .260 in 2017 (well below the AL average of .324) to .319 in 2018 (a tick above the AL average of .318) and pushed his overall offensive production from 16 percent below league average (as measured by his 84 weighted runs created plus, or wRC+) to four percent above league average (104 wRC+).

And I haven’t even mentioned the most fun aspect of his 2018 season: He pitched! And he pitched well.

Thirty pitchers took the mound for the White Sox in 2018, all of whom made at least three appearances. And only one of them didn’t allow a run: Davidson.

He topped out at 91.9 MPH and had as many strikeouts, two, as baserunners allowed in his three innings of work. The two batters he struck out, Rougned Odor and Giancarlo Stanton, combined for 56 home runs in 2018. They combined for 89 home runs (and an MVP award) in 2017.

In his career, Stanton had a combined 16 plate appearances and zero strikeouts against Barry Zito, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Edwin Díaz. He struck out in his one plate appearance against Davidson.

Davidson is one of just three players with 20 or more home runs and at least three mound appearances in a season in MLB history:

— Babe Ruth (1919): 29 home runs, 17 games on the mound
— Davidson (2018): 20 home runs, three games on the mound
— Shohei Ohtani (2018): 22 home runs, 10 games on the mound

Facts are facts. Davidson is actually serious about expanding his role on the mound.

“To be honest, I would love to maybe explore that idea,” he said in July. “Pitching was a dream. As a young kid, everybody wants to hit that walk-off homer, right? I was the guy striking that guy out. That’s how I first loved the game. My favorite player was Randy Johnson and doing that.

“So, it’s something I would be interested in. I don’t know if the game would necessarily allow that or something like that. It’s something that is really close to my heart is pitching.”

Whether or not it ever happens, Davidson’s 2018 was all about finding ways to increase his value. For the White Sox, that’s a good problem to have.