Can Mather repeat in soccer?

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Can Mather repeat in soccer?

Mather soccer coach Branko Cvijovic is still reveling in the aftermath of his team's monumental victory in the Class 2A championship in November. And he can't help but think about what the only Chicago Public League winner since 1973 can do for an encore in 2012.

"I love the feeling at the end of the season to see everybody is still there," Cvijovic said. "You start in the heat in August and end in the cold and wind in October. You look around and see they still are around and it's a good feeling. They are healthy and have fun and if they accomplish something, that's a bonus."

Cvijovic, 50, grew up playing soccer in his native Montenegro. He played for an organized club, a second-tier team, and always felt he could coach the game he loved better than he could play it. After he came to the United States in 1989, he got an opportunity to prove he was right.

He arrived at Mather on Chicago's North Side 10 years ago. He coached the frosh-soph team to the city title in 2002 and guided the junior varsity to the city final in 2004. This year, he was named head coach of the varsity. From the first day of practice, he had a different approach.

"Everywhere else but here, in this country, the core of the game is to have fun, to let everyone have an individual style but to not hurt the team concept, especially at the amateur level. In high school, you aren't paid to play. You should do it for fun," Cvijovic said.

"I don't know if it is fun here but the approach in different sports is to play to win as opposed to having fun. There is too much pressure from coaches and parents. You even see it at the national level.

"My philosophy? I love to see the technical ability of the player. Let him do what he might not have an opportunity to do. Dedicate some time during practice for free time, fun time. Let them play and enjoy the game. That's my style -- let them play and have fun, even if it isn't practical. Let them enjoy the game."

Mather's drive to the school's first state championship in any sport is a feel-good story, a first-year coach molding the attitudes and styles and personalities of teenagers from five continents and nine nationalities into a cohesive unit that came together in a relative short period of time.

The 21-member squad, which included players from Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bosnia and Mexico, started on Aug. 10 and only missed two practices in three months. A dozen played on last year's team that lost to Maine West in a Class 3A sectional final.

"From day one I believed there was great potential," Cvijovic said. "That's why I took the job. They need to work hard and come to practice and enjoy the game. But we are here to achieve great things.

"I saw them play last year when I wasn't coaching. I saw they had great talent. I saw a blend of styles and talent and stuff I enjoyed watching. I inherited a great team but I had to work hard to get them to believe in themselves and to develop team spirit and team cohesiveness. That's what they lacked last year. They didn't play together. They didn't know each other, being from five continents. They didn't know how to blend their styles and strengths. There was too much individualism.

"I wanted all of them to know that we shouldn't be happy with small things, that we are capable of doing great things. I didn't mention state but, deep down, I felt we could win state."

Mission accomplished. The Rangers, led by senior Qudus Lawal, crushed Chatham Glenwood 6-0 to win the state title and complete a 21-3-1 season. Lawal, the lone Public League selection on the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area team and one of five Nigerians on the team, scored a record four goals in the final, including three in the second half (two within a span of 17 seconds) as Mather broke away from a 1-0 halftime lead. He finished with 41 goals for the season.

"Skill-wise, I wouldn't be surprised if Lawal plays professionally," Cvijovic told veteran Chicago newspaper reporter John Montgomery. "I've never seen anybody use his body on a soccer field as well as he does to make the plays (to score goals). He is a skilled player. It's hard to guard him on the field. You have to have more than just skill."

In a recent EastWest all-star game in Birmingham, Alabama, Lawal scored two goals and assisted on a third as his West team won 3-2.

"He is one of the five best players in the country. And nobody knew about him until this year. In three months, he achieved it all. He became the best player in the state, the player of the year," Cvijovic said. "He wants to go to college. He has so many offers. He is a very good and very unorthodox player. You can't tell until you see him play the game and what he produces."

So what about next year? Lawal and seven other starters will graduate. Only three starters will return.

Cvijovic said junior Kenan Alihodzic, a Bosnian, will be next year's leader. An outstanding defender and very mature, he played centerforward as a freshman. "He has great potential," the coach said.

The other returning starters are junior Godman Eseh, a centermidfielder from Nigeria, and sophomore goalie Edwin Vazquez, a Mexican who had a hand in the team's nine shutouts in 2011.

Much is expected from Mahdi Mahdi, a centermidfielder who was the only freshman on the varsity last season, and sophomore Andres Torrez. "Both have potential to be very good players," Cvijovic said.

"We will be competitive but we won't be as good (as this year)," Cvijovic said. "It will be more of a challenge next year. Everyone wants to play us. We have a target on our backs. There will be more pressure on our team.

"But not much was expected of us last season, especially from a city team in the state tournament. We made a name for ourselves. Now suburban teams will have more respect for us. In the past, suburban and Downstate teams wanted to play city teams because they didn't think we were good enough. And we lost 10-0 and 11-0. It was a great lesson for our kids to see what organized soccer is."

No deals, but Bulls hardly stagnant on wild first day of free agency

No deals, but Bulls hardly stagnant on wild first day of free agency

The NBA’s new money infused through some lucrative television contracts ushered in a new economic climate and frankly, a different NBA on Day 1 of free agency.

The Bulls have been largely on the outside looking in as far as activity, with numerous nine-figure contracts being handed out and none by the team that plays on the West Side — though it would be a stretch to say they haven’t been affected or that they’ve been stagnant.

Free-agent point guard Rajon Rondo met with the Bulls in Chicago, but there wasn’t a sense a deal is coming, along with various reports of Chicago native Dwyane Wade talking with the Bulls as he appears dissatisfied with the offers he’s received from the Miami Heat — and apparently the Bulls are one of many who are courting the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, according to Yahoo! Sports.

The conversations with Wade — and to a lesser degree, Rondo — signify a deviation from general manager Gar Forman and coach Fred Hoiberg’s recent public declarations that they would like to get younger, faster and more athletic while adding more shooting.

Wade is 34, a career 28-percent 3-point shooter and plays the same position as Jimmy Butler. Rondo led the league in assists last year in Sacramento (11.7 per game) but is 30, a career 29-percent 3-point shooter and has had run-ins with various coaches, including being banished by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle in the 2015 playoffs.

Elite talents to be sure, but one wonders how they fit into the Bulls’ immediate plans given the identity has gone through a jarring change in the last week or so.

[MORE BULLS TALK: E'Twaun Moore signs four-year deal with Pelicans]

Joakim Noah’s exit, while inevitable given the direction of the franchise and the way the last year played out for Noah, still stung as he agreed to a four-year, $72 million deal with the New York Knicks, joining Derrick Rose.

Noah’s energy and voice became the identity of the Bulls after he was drafted in 2007. Arriving before Rose and years before Tom Thibodeau strolled into town, Noah embodied a hard-playing style the Bulls prided themselves on up until recently.

He took advantage of the league’s new economic realities, as did a player the Bulls had hopes of keeping in E’Twaun Moore, a valuable reserve guard who blossomed when given the opportunity.

The Bulls wanted to keep Moore and believed their offer, which took advantage of the franchise owning Moore’s "Early Bird Rights," would be satisfactory in retaining him, despite the courtship of teams like the New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks.

Moore accepted a four-year, $34 million deal with the Pelicans, giving him both the average annual salary he was seeking while also securing him that precious fourth year, considering Moore was a late second-round pick in 2011 and played for three teams in his five-year professional career.

According to a source, the Bulls offered Moore a three-year deal around $21 million, the limit given the Bulls wanted to preserve a maximum salary slot with their needs at point guard and small forward. And it was likely the Bulls didn’t want to commit a fourth year to Moore, given the East Chicago, Ind., native just turned 27 in February.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

When players like Matthew Dellavedova (restricted free agent) signed for $38.4 million over four years on an offer sheet from the Bucks a couple hours before Moore’s news came down, it became increasingly difficult to envision Moore in a Bulls uniform next season, though they’ll certainly miss him.

Next to Butler, he was the Bulls’ most rugged and versatile perimeter defender while steadily hitting jumpers to the tune of 45 percent from 3-point range. And given the way the Bulls’ locker room often seemed unhinged last season, Moore was a model of consistency, staying professional and not getting dragged into any drama.

Day 1 of free agency produced some wild numbers, with the roller-coaster just beginning — and at some point, the Bulls will take their turn on it, simply because they have to.

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

NEW YORK — Cubs fans created a happy-to-be-here vibe during last year’s surprising playoff ride — and also booed Jason Hammel at Wrigley Field in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

While this didn’t fit John Lackey’s classic definition of a “Big Boy Game,” the New York Mets again crushed Hammel and dominated the Cubs during Friday night’s 10-2 blowout at Citi Field, reopening questions about that breakdown last October.

Hammel gave up 10 runs across four-plus innings in a game that technically ended on Saturday morning and didn’t have any flow with three separate rain delays that lasted one hour and 59 minutes combined. While Cubs Twitter wondered about the possibility of another second-half fade, Hammel shrugged his shoulders after his ERA soared from 2.58 to 3.45 on July 1.

“Where do you start?” Hammel said at his locker. “Always try to get to new levels in your career, you know, set career highs, so got a couple of those taken care of.

“I’m just going to let this one disappear. I’m almost lost for words just because of how bad it was.

“Tomorrow’s a new day, and this game always has a way of basically humoring you and also humbling you at the same time. I’m not even going to sweat it. Obviously, not happy that we lost. But I’m not going to let it beat me up.”

[MORE CUBS TALK: With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs see issues Mets exposed in NLCS]

Hammel wouldn’t use the weather as an excuse for his lack of rhythm — “Mother Nature is Mother Nature” — and pointed out it didn’t disrupt Jacob deGrom (4-4, 2.62 ERA), who allowed one run across five innings and finally got enough offensive support to earn his first win since April 30.

The Mets blasted five homers off Hammel, including back-to-back shots from James Loney (an injury replacement who had been with the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in late May) and Asdrubal Cabrera in the second inning, Brandon Nimmo’s first in The Show and another lightning-quick swing from Yoenis Cespedes.

Against a team desperate for offense, Hammel matched a franchise record — this was only the sixth time in club history that a single Cubs pitcher gave up five home runs in a game.

After an offseason reboot, the Cubs hoped Hammel 2.0 would be a more sustainable model. The sign-and-flip guy had gone 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA through 17 starts in 2014 before getting packaged with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell trade with the Oakland A’s (where he went 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA).

The punctuation to that NLCS sweep — getting four outs in an 8-3 elimination loss to the Mets — seemingly began with a leg injury that messed with Hammel’s mechanics and confidence and divided his season into before (2.86 ERA in 103-plus innings) and after (5.10 ERA in 67 innings) the All-Star break.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Everyone has off nights, Hammel has performed at an All-Star level for long stretches throughout his career and the Cubs (51-28) still have the best record in baseball and a 10-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.

But with all these young power pitchers, Cespedes in the middle of their lineup, lights-out closer Jeurys Familia and a resourceful front office, the Mets (42-37) aren’t going to concede the pennant just because the Cubs won the offseason, lead the league in T-shirts and have an awesome run differential.

“Over the course of 162 games, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” Hammel said. “You try to make those few and far between, but they’re going to happen.

“As long as you don’t take it with you for the next day, it’s not going to effect us at all.”

Is there actually reason for optimism with the Fire?

Is there actually reason for optimism with the Fire?

After back-to-back wins suddenly the doom and gloom surrounding the Chicago Fire has been lifted, at least for now.

The Fire played well in a 1-0 win against San Jose. That win came three days after beating Columbus in the U.S. Open Cup.

Granted, Columbus was short a couple key players due to injury and sat a couple more to rest them. Meanwhile, San Jose is so short on centerbacks that when coach Dominic Kinnear was asked about the team's injury problems, Kinnear jokingly asked the reporter if he could play centerback.

Still though, there was something about the Fire's play that showed genuine improvement from the early season games when the team struggled to put shots on goal, let alone get goals or wins. John Goossens nutmegged two players in the first half and scored the game-winning goal. Brazilian right back Rodrigo Ramos lived up to what Brazilian outside backs are known for, a flair on the ball and a desire to go forward at every opportunity.

“I think that’s the way you play when you’re having fun," Goossens said. "You’re doing your job and in the meantime you’re having fun. Rodrigo is a great player who can run 90 minutes and that makes it easier for me. When he’s coming, the defender has to make a decision what to do. Will he stay with me or go with Rodrigo? I think we have a great combination and we have to keep working on that to make it even better, to make it even more difficult for the opposing defenders.”

[RELATED: John Goossens scores first MLS goal in Fire win]

Ramos looked like he is playing with more confidence than he did earlier in the season. The 21-year-old lifted a ball over a defender's head to get around him and on another occasion flicked a ball with his back foot to draw a yellow card from Shaun Francis. In addition he delivered a number of crosses to give the Fire scoring chances.

“That’s one of my strengths, to be strong up top so I’m trying to use that to the team’s advantage," Ramos said through a translator. "The team is lacking assists so I’m hoping to give a lot of assists.”

[SHOP: Buy your Fire jersey here]

The way the season had gone before this week and how the past several years have gone, it's hard to believe multiple good things can line up for the Fire at once. Fire fans will be forgiven for cringing at the thought of optimism because they've been burned so much.

However, on face value, things are legitimately headed in a positive direction, which admittedly isn't tough for a team in last place. David Accam and Goossens are back from injury and producing. Arturo Alvarez and Matt Polster, both regulars in midfield when healthy, should be back from injury soon. Michael de Leeuw is set for his debut in the team's next match. As opposed to having a rail thin roster, which has struggled to fill out its bench due to injuries, coach Veljko Paunovic may now have some tough lineup selection decisions to make.

“We are getting there," Paunovic said. "I still believe there is a long way to go."

Of course, the standings still don't look good for the Fire. At 3-7-5, the Fire are tied for last in the league with Houston, and are six points out of the last playoff spot in the weaker Eastern Conference. This is one of the reasons why Paunovic was quick to emphasize the importance to keep the streak going in Toronto on July 9. That's a Toronto team which will be without injured Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Will Johnson and Clint Irwin.

"Next game we need another win and that’s our message now," Paunovic said. "We just started. We have to take advantage of this momentum, this great period we created in the last two games."