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.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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