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.

Luis Robert will start journey through White Sox organization in Dominican Summer League

Luis Robert will start journey through White Sox organization in Dominican Summer League

Luis Robert is officially a member of the White Sox organization.

Introduced with much fanfare during a Saturday press conference, Robert strolled out to the pitcher's mound at Gauranteed Rate Field for a ceremonial first pitch wearing a White Sox hat and jersey prior to the first game of Saturday's doubleheader.

But amid the hype and the excitement for White Sox fans, patience will be required. Robert is still a ways away from the big leagues, with general manager Rick Hahn saying Saturday that the 19-year-old Cuban outfielder will begin his journey through the organization in the Dominican Republic with the White Sox team in the Dominican Summer League.

Hahn made a point of mentioning that Robert hasn't played in a baseball game since last summer, meaning it's been nearly a year since the White Sox newest highly touted prospect has taken the field.

“It should be noted he has not played in a game since last July. He’s been preparing for workouts over the last several months. So right now, from Chicago, he’s going to return to the Dominican and begin his development there," Hahn said. "He will prepare to join our Dominican Summer League team in the coming weeks and then we will get all the visas in place and take things from there. His initial assignment will be back to the Dominican as he prepares to work his way through the White Sox organization.

"We’re going to have to be patient with this because he hasn’t played in almost a year now. He has been training now quite frankly more to be a workout warrior than an everyday baseball player. We’re gonna take our time at our complex, get him back playing games regularly and then get him out there. But the fact that he hasn’t played in competition for 11 months now is going to be a factor in how quickly we move him along in '17."

[WHITE SOX TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Scouting reports that have compared Robert to the likes of Adam Jones and Lorenzo Cain, plus the gaudy numbers he posted in the Cuban National Series including a .401 batting average in 53 games during the 2016 season, have generated plenty of buzz. Robert is already one of the White Sox top prospects and one of the higher-rated prospects in baseball on his first day as a pro.

But as Hahn mentioned Saturday, there's still plenty of development for Robert before he's ready for the majors.

"There’s still a fair amount of development for this player," Hahn said. "This will take some time here. But with his raw set of materials and what he’s accomplished in international competition and at the highest league in Cuba at a young age, helps reinforce how you project this player to develop."

Even before Robert's signing, it was obvious Hahn and the White Sox were playing the long game, with top prospects like Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Michael Kopech allowed plenty of time before their eventual summons to the big leagues. Robert, again just 19 years old, will take some time, too. But the White Sox are confident it will all pay off.

"Luis Robert is going to be the player that his tools allow him to become and his health and development pace dictates," Hahn said. "We do think he has the potential to be a perennial impact player in the middle of our diamond and lineup for years to come. That’s an important piece to be able to add to the organization."

90 Days to Kickoff: Morris

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90 Days to Kickoff: Morris

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Jul. 31, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 25.

School: Morris

Head coach: Alan Thorson

Assistant coaches: John Courter, Greg Larsen, John Wodziak, Keith Anderson, Derek Johnston, Justin Zink, Matt Seidel, Brian Kasher, Ryan Battersby, Ryan Clauson, Tyler Hartley, Kyle Enervold

How they fared in 2016: 10-3 (3-1 Northern Illinois Big 12 East), lost to Peoria in the IHSA Class 5A semifinals.

[MORE: 91 Days to Kickoff - Ridgewood]

2017 regular season schedule:

Aug. 25 –DuSable

Sept. 1 – @ Washington

Sept. 8 – @ Quincy Notre Dame

Sept. 15 - Rochelle

Sept. 22 - @ Yorkville

Sept. 29 – DeKalb

Oct. 6 - Kaneland

Oct. 13 - @ Sycamore

Oct. 20 - @ Geneseo

Biggest storyline: Can the Redskins once again make a deep postseason run?

Names to watch this season: Senior OL Nathan Korte, Senior OL Nolan Feeney, WR/TE Tyler Spiezio

Biggest holes to fill: Morris will need to find some answers in the offensive skills department.

EDGY's early take: Morris will play its last season in the Northern Illinois Big 12 conference before heading to the Interstate 8 in 2018. If the Redskins can replace some graduated offensive skills players, Morris has a ton of experience, especially on both sides of the line, that could carry them deep into 5A. Also, keep an eye on the Redskins enrollment, which is pushing them closer and closer to Class 4A over the past few years.