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."

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started at Dodger Stadium late Friday night, Cubs fans celebrating Kris Bryant’s two-run homer in the 10th inning and cheering on this entertaining comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength, stares down hitters from 60 feet, six inches and unleashes his entire arsenal, it’s impossible to know how the Cubs would stack up against Los Angeles in October. But it’s still safe to say this would be an epic playoff matchup between two big-market, star-studded franchises, with two iconic ballparks becoming the backdrop, celebrity row after celebrity row.

As a quiet homebody who happens to have his own billboards and marketing deals – but doesn’t do bulletin-board quotes or brag about his game – Bryant is not exactly a Hollywood personality. But this is also a goal-oriented individual who doesn’t shy away from the pressure and the expectations and absolutely wants to be the best at his craft.

The Cubs won this round with Bryant, who launched his 34th and 35th home runs in a 6-4 victory, an MVP-worthy season becoming the sequel to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

“It’s humbling,” Bryant said. “You grow up hearing that kind of stuff on TV. To experience it in real life is pretty cool.”

It became hard to hear Bryant inside the visiting clubhouse, because teammates chanted “MVP!” and sung along with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as “Nuthin But a G Thang” played on the sound system. But for most of the night, it looked like it would be a silent room postgame as the resilient Dodgers took 3-1 and 4-2 leads.

Until the eighth inning, when Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blocked off for the batter’s eye. And then the ninth inning showed why manager Joe Maddon will want Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward in a playoff lineup.

In the middle of a frustrating offensive season where he’s felt the weight of a $184 million contract, Heyward led off by ripping a double into the right-field corner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Heyward hustled to third base when new Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn’t handle strike three against Jorge Soler. Heyward ran home to score the game-tying run when a Jansen wild pitch sailed toward the backstop.

That set the stage for Bryant, who brought up the fielding error he made in the fifth inning during his postgame interview on Channel 7 after hitting the game-winning homer off lefty Adam Liberatore. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo may set the tone in the clubhouse, but Bryant already brings tunnel vision and a high degree of professionalism to an 82-45 team, even at the age of 24. 

“He just doesn’t quit,” Heyward said. “He wants to be in every spot. He goes up there and has his at-bat – and that’s it.

“You can talk about why he’s been hitting the ball well, this and that, but he has a good approach. It’s that simple. Other than that, he works his tail off every day to try and go out there and help us win.

“When you have that gift – and you have that work ethic – the bottom line is a lot of good things can happen.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A resourceful $250 million team won’t fade away, even with Kershaw (back) not pitching for two months, one of 27 players the Dodgers have stashed on the disabled list, tying a major-league record. Los Angeles has cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth, a powerful lineup and a strong bullpen to surge into first place and hold onto a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

“How about last year?” Maddon said. “We beat up on the Mets during the season, we go (into the playoffs) and we can’t even touch them. It’s such a different animal. People get hot or people get cold.

“I’m not going to diminish the fact I’m going to be paying attention. But things change. Trends can be so trendy, to quote Yogi. So I don’t get too far ahead, because things can change very quickly.”

Like Bryant going from a promising player with a few holes in his swing who looked worn down at times last season – to an MVP frontrunner with a .303 average, 89 RBI, 107 runs scored, a .982 OPS and the versatility to play third base, defensively shift across the infield and move to the outfield.

Kershaw vs. Bryant would be must-see TV in October.

In the Gym at EFT: Wide receiver skill development

In the Gym at EFT: Wide receiver skill development

In the first edition of EFT Football Academy, TF North graduate Landon Cox, who was a star wide receiver at Northern Illinois and later in the NFL, shares some tips on how to become a better receiver and be more efficient on the field.

Cox is a Performance Specialist and wide receiver coach at EFT. In this segment Cox works on a few different techniques with Warren Township junior wide receiver Micah Jones.

EFT has evolved into the premier elite performance training facility in the Midwest, where every EFT football coach has NFL experience and the dedication to helping each player reach their potential. The EFT Football Academy is designed to assist in the development of grade school, high school, and collegiate football players.

Some of their off-season training experience includes 70+ active NFL athletes, six Super Bowl Champions, six Olympics, and more.

[MORE: High School Lites Football Roundup: Week 1]

In addition, performance includes explosive power development, positional movement pattern development, proper spring and change of direction mechanics, and more. Every EFT workout focuses on improving each athlete's overall abilities like speed development, agility and mobility, acceleration and deceleration, and strength and condition — just to name a few.

Former Bears wide receiver Devin Hester called it "the best workout in the world."

Watch Cox's tips in the video above, and be sure to look out for next week's edition on CSNChicago.com.

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – In their never-ending search for young pitching, the Cubs discussed a Matt Moore deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, but wouldn’t consider trading Kyle Schwarber. To get Moore at the Aug. 1 deadline, the San Francisco Giants had to surrender the runner-up to Kris Bryant in last season’s National League Rookie of the Year race (Matt Duffy), plus two more prospects.

Moore finished one out short of a no-hitter on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, throwing 133 pitches against a deep Los Angeles lineup, two-plus years after having Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. Whether or not Moore helps shift the balance of power in the National League West, the Cubs should still have enough pitching.

To get through October. As long as John Lackey (shoulder) comes off the disabled list in early September and the rest of the rotation stays healthy. Surviving next season and beyond could be a different story, if Jake Arrieta becomes another team’s 2018 Opening Day starter, if Jon Lester breaks down in the middle of that $155 million megadeal and assuming Lackey finally retires around the 3,000-inning mark.

All that makes Mike Montgomery an interesting lefty swingman if the Cubs are going to maintain The Foundation for Sustained Success.

“I think he is a major-league starter, regardless of what happens tonight,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s wild 6-4 comeback win that took 10 innings at Dodger Stadium. “This guy has the ability to be a solid major-league starter based on his strength level, his delivery, the variety of pitches that he throws. The strike-throwing ability is exceptional. He’s got all those different things going on.

“Just be a little bit patient with (him) and let him get his feet on the ground somewhere, because he’s the kind of guy that can take off if he gets comfortable in his environment.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

If Montgomery didn’t ace this audition, he also didn’t bomb against a first-place team in front of a big crowd (48,609), either, showing the potential the Cubs saw in making last month’s trade with the Seattle Mariners.

Montgomery kept the Cubs in the game before Bryant’s clutch performance, allowing three runs in five innings and minimizing the damage on a night where he didn’t have pinpoint control (four walks, hit batter, wild pitch, 49 strikes across 91 pitches).

The Cubs are in trouble if Montgomery somehow winds up in this year’s playoff rotation, but he checks a lot of boxes for the future as someone with youth (27), size (6-foot-5), first-round/top-prospect pedigree, a high groundball rate and a service-time clock that won’t make him a free agent until after the 2021 season.