Premier League the goal for Fire's Johnson


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.

Penn State is the Big Ten champ, as for Playoff: 'It's on you now, the committee'

Penn State is the Big Ten champ, as for Playoff: 'It's on you now, the committee'

INDIANAPOLIS — The Nittany Lions are Big Ten champs. Does that mean they’ll get into the College Football Playoff?

In the hours leading up to Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game, the consensus answer was “no.” After all, Washington was impressive Friday night in its Pac-12 title game win over Colorado, impressive enough to look Playoff bound. Alabama and Ohio State figured to be locks. And if Clemson took care of business against Virginia Tech, then the Tigers figured to snag that last open spot. Heck, even if something crazy happened to Clemson, Michigan might have had a better chance than whichever team won the Big Ten title game.

But then the Big Ten title game happened, and Penn State’s epic comeback victory over Wisconsin — erasing a three-touchdown deficit behind the sensational efforts of Trace McSorley in a 38-31 win— has everyone asking the same question: Did the Lions do enough to make a big jump into the final four?

James Franklin had his answer.

“What I do know is we just won the toughest conference in college football. We’ve won nine straight. They say you’re allowed to overcome early setbacks? We’ve done that.

“It’s on you now, the committee.”

The truth is that Penn State has a mighty appealing resume. The Lions are winners of nine straight games, including the conference-championship bout. They have a pair of top-10 wins, including taking down the second-ranked Buckeyes. They’re playing as well as anyone in the conference and stack up with country’s finest.

It would make a lot of sense for the selection committee to put Penn State in the final four.

“These last nine weeks we’ve just continued to get better and better,” McSorley said, not advocating for a Playoff spot but providing an assessment of how far this team has come. “Coming in each week and preparing harder. Taking it one game at a time, never overlooking anything. There are a lot of times rankings and that stuff came out, there’s been a lot of noise about where (we) ranked and that sort of stuff. We just stayed focused on the next game and the next thing that was our task.

"And for us to continue to have that mindset with the ultimate goal in the background — it’s a one-game-at-a-time mentality, but we know what we’re working toward — I think it was awesome for our team. And for us to continue to come in and continue to get better each week, taking the next step, never staying the same but never falling back, always continuing to improve. It’s tremendous the improvement that we’ve made from Week 5 until now.”

But the question isn’t whether the Lions are deserving or not. They are. The question is: How do you box one of the other teams out? What exactly did Washington do to fall behind Penn State? The Huskies entered the weekend ranked fourth and put a 31-point whooping on the eighth-ranked team in the country. And what about Clemson? The third-ranked Tigers survived a scare from Virginia Tech in a high-scoring ACC title game. They won their conference championship, and now they should be eliminated?

And then there’s Michigan hanging out there at No. 5, which had the same regular-season record as Penn State and won the head-to-head matchup by 39 points.

The selection committee has a hard few hours ahead of it. Perhaps this will be 2014 all over again, when Ohio State impressed so much in the Big Ten title game that it leaped over two teams to make it into the field of four. Perhaps there wasn’t enough Penn State could do — and it did an awful lot Saturday night — to get past victorious Clemson and Washington teams, each of which has only one loss to its name.

And maybe that’s why the Lions were already practicing their gracious-loser responses after the big win Saturday. While Franklin politicked in front of a raucous bunch of Penn State fans at Lucas Oil Stadium, his players were happy just to be nominated, so to speak.

“We’ll be watching, no doubt about it. But I think the best thing about tomorrow is, regardless, we know we’re going to get another opportunity to play another game and play as a family, and I think that’s what’s most important,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “We’re just so excited. Regardless of the opportunity, it’s going to be an awesome opportunity, regardless of where it’s going to be whether it’s a Playoff or it’s a Rose Bowl or whatever bowl game. We’re going to be super excited about it.”

“You want to compete for a national championship, you want to play for a national championship, but you also can only control what you can control,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “Obviously we set ourselves to be in the Rose Bowl or the Playoff, and if we get left out we’re still playing for a Rose Bowl. … You can’t go wrong with that.”

Obviously, the alternative is pretty nice, too. Remember that Penn State wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this position. The Lions are still working out from under the shadow of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, not to mention they play in the toughest division in college football, sharing the standings with top-ranked giants Ohio State and Michigan and last year’s conference champ Michigan State.

Making the Rose Bowl? That would be a huge deal for a program that was considered accomplished for 7-6 seasons in each of Franklin’s first two at the helm.

It would be unwise to write Penn State completely out of the Playoff picture quite yet. The selection committee will be having long conversations about the merits of the Lions versus the merits of the Huskies and Tigers and Wolverines.

Penn State’s fate at this point is truly a mystery, something that wasn’t expected when the night started.

But unexpected has kind of been a theme for the Lions this season. Maybe they’ve got one more big unexpected surprise left in them come Sunday afternoon.

“We’re going to wake up tomorrow, go back to State College, watch the selection committee do whatever they want to do, and we’re going to start preparing for whoever it is they announce who we’re playing and where we’re going,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Obviously we can’t control where we’re going, but like we’re been saying all year, as long as we’re taking care of our business, everything else will take care of itself.”

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to bounce back vs. Jets tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to bounce back vs. Jets tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Winnipeg Jets tonight on CSN and streaming live on Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Seeking revenge.

In their first meeting of the season, the Jets ended the Blackhawks' 11-game point streak by shutting them out 4-0 in Winnipeg. The Blackhawks will look to get even tonight when the Jets come into their building, where the Blackhawks are 10-1-2. The Jets haven't been as successful away from home, carrying a 4-8-2 road record into the United Center.

2. Tired legs? Not so fast.

It will be a quick turnaround for the Blackhawks, who will play their second game in as many days traveling from Philadelphia to Chicago. But don't expect fatigue to play too much of a role. Well, maybe it will, but the Blackhawks have been close to perfect in the second of a back-to-back with a 4-0-1 record compared to 3-3-0 in the first game. It also helps that Saturday's game against the Flyers was at 12 p.m., giving the team some extra time to recover for a divisional matchup. The Jets, on the other hand, will being playing in their second game in as many nights as well, having played St. Louis last night which ended in a 3-2 overtime win for the Jets. 

3. Who's in, who's out on D?

Trevor van Riemsdyk returned to the lineup Saturday, and certainly showed some rust after missing more than six weeks with an upper-body injury. With it being the second of a back-to-back, the Blackhawks could look to rotate the blue line and reinsert Gustav Forsling, who was a healthy scratch for the first time, back into the equation and perhaps Michal Rozsival, too.

4. Patrik Laine.

The No. 2 overall pick in 2016 has scored four goals and an assist in his last three games, continuing his phenomenal rookie campagin. He's on pace to reach almost 40 goals, which is incredible for a rookie in an era where scoring gets harder and harder. He's tied with Sidney Crosby for the league lead with 16 goals, one of which came against Chicago in the first meeting. 

5. Capitalize on special teams.

The Jets haven't been particularly good on special teams lately. They're 3-for-26 on the power play in their last 10 games, which is an 11.5 percent success rate, and are 26-for-36 on the penalty kill (72.2 percent) in their last eight. Their power play percentage ranks 20th in the league at 15.2 and penalty kill ranks 25th at 79.0. They're trending in the wrong direction. The Blackhawks are still struggling to find a rhythm on the power play, so perhaps this is a good opportunity to break through.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

- Check out the latest stats and standings to make sure you’re ready for action

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

- NBC Sports App FAQ: All your questions answered

- Latest on the Blackhawks: All of the most recent news and notes

- See what Blackhawks fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Blackhawks Pulse