Wrigley Field transforms for soccer, American-led AS Roma

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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.

Fire score five goals for fourth preseason win

Fire score five goals for fourth preseason win

Preseason wins don't necessarily translate to regular season wins, but the Chicago Fire haven't had much trouble racking up February wins in Florida.

The Fire made it 4-for-4 in the preseason with a 5-2 win against North American Soccer League foe Miami FC from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on Sunday.

The game featured some aesthetically pleasing goals, but the opener was a reminder that it's preseason and the players aren't in midseason form yet. A back pass from a Miami defender turned into a through ball for Luis Solignac. Solignac took the gift and scored uncontested with a slotted shot in the box in the third minute.

Miami evened things up in the 38th minute when Dylan Mares was left open on the left side of the box and scored with a low shot.

The Fire regained the lead with a penalty kick a few minutes later. A Brandon Vincent cross resulted in a handball in the box and John Goossens rifled the penalty into the upper 90.

Trialist Taylor Peay got the start at right back, his first appearance of the preseason. Three draft picks, Daniel Johnson, Brandt Bronico and Matej Dekovic, also started.

In the second half the Fire went with an entirely different lineup and the attack livened up. Arturo Alvarez kicked things off by cutting in to his left foot and scoring with a shot into the side netting in the 49th minute. A few minutes later the Fire piled on the pressure with David Accam getting free from his man and then setting up Nemanja Nikolic, whose shot was saved onto the post and back into play. The Fire came right back with a long shot from Juninho that forced a rebound that David Arshakyan tucked away.

The fifth goal was the best of the bunch. A 10-pass sequence with mostly one-touch passing and Drew Conner at the heart of the buildup led to Nemanja Nikolic centering a ball to David Accam, who scored into an open net.

Nikolic, Accam and Alvarez provided an immediate spark to the attack after a first half in which the Fire struggled to create chances from the run of play.

The game also featured the usage of the video replay system the league is using in select preseason matches in preparation for the system's use in the regular season. In the 71st minute the referee used the replay system to go back and call a penalty kick on a Michael Harrington foul. Goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland, drafted by the Fire in the second round in January, saved the penalty kick, but Ariel Pedro Martinez was able to score on the rebound.

In other news, goalkeeper Matt Lampson has a sprained MCL. A spokesman for the Fire said he could return for the season opener. Jorge Bava got the start on Sunday and appears to be in line to begin the season at the Fire's No. 1 keeper.

On the live stream of the match former Fire TV analyst Kevin Egan said former Newcastle United right back Ryan Taylor, 32, is expected to join the Fire in camp as a trialist shortly.

The Fire's next preseason match is against USL side FC Cincinnati on Wednesday.

See gifs of the first two Fire goals and Arshakyan's second half rebound below:

Patrick Kane leads Blackhawks to win in Buffalo homecoming

Patrick Kane leads Blackhawks to win in Buffalo homecoming

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)  - Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist in his annual homecoming, leading the Chicago Blackhawks to a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.

Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews broke it open with second-period goals for Chicago, which won for the seventh time in eight games. Ryan Hartman and Artem Anisimov also scored, helping the Blackhawks bounce back from a 3-1 loss to Edmonton on Saturday.

Evander Kane scored and Robin Lehner stopped 32 shots for Buffalo in its final game before its five-day bye. The Sabres were trying for their first four-game win streak since December 2014.

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling, subbing for starter Corey Crawford, made 25 saves in just his seventh appearance in two months.

Chicago won its 11th consecutive game over the Buffalo. The Blackhawks haven't lost to the Sabres since a 2-1 defeat at Buffalo on Dec. 11, 2009.

Kane grew up in south Buffalo and continues to dominate the Sabres. He has scored in eight straight games against the Sabres and upped his career total to eight goals and four assists in 13 meetings.

Lehner had no chance on Kane's 20th goal of the season early in the third period. The NHL MVP was set up on the right of the Buffalo net, and was untouched for several seconds before easily depositing the puck inside the right post for a 5-1 lead.

Both of Kane's points came in the opening 6 1/2 minutes of the third, and after Chicago's depth and speed overpowered Buffalo in the second.

Hossa made it 2-1 at 9:40 in after his initial chance was stopped by Lehner. Marcus Kruger chased down the puck and fed Hossa at the boards, where he took a few steps toward the net and beat Lehner on the short side.

Toews scored six minutes later, when the Blackhawks maintained control in the Buffalo zone after winning a faceoff to the left of the net. Lehner stopped Richard Panik's shot from the left circle but was unable to control the puck, which dribbled loose into the crease. Toews beat Buffalo's Jack Eichel across the middle and tapped the puck into the open right side.

The goal was payback for Toews, who was stripped by Eichel in the final seconds of the opening period. The turnover led to Eichel setting up Evander Kane with 6 seconds left. It was Kane's team-leading 21st of the season, all of which have come in his past 36 games.

The Blackhawks struck first on Hartman's goal 13:34 into the game. Using his speed to drive from the top of the blue line and to the right circle, Hartman snapped a laser that beat Lehner high on the short side.

NOTES: Sabres C Sam Reinhart missed his second consecutive game due to illness. ... Blackhawks LW Vinnie Hinostroza played after being recalled from the minors earlier in the day. ... Sabres D Taylor Fedun cleared waivers and was assigned to Rochester of the AHL.