Chicago Fire

O'Brien starting to scratch the surface

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O'Brien starting to scratch the surface

High school coaches often say that the most satisfying experience of their career is when the "light bulb goes on" in the mind of a young athlete, when he realizes for the first time how good he can be, that he can play the game as well or better than everyone else.

For Mundelein's Sean O'Brien, that landmark moment came last July.

O'Brien went on to have an outstanding junior season. He averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds and proved to be an agile shot-blocker as Mundelein finished 26-8, losing to Warren in the sectional final for the second year in a row.

"My junior year was the best year of my life," O'Brien said. "Our team played great and it was by far my best year personally. It was a breakout season. College coaches started to notice me."

In the recent Best Buy tournament in Minneapolis, playing for Mike Weinstein's Fundamental University, O'Brien turned in another signature performance, attracting the attention of several Division I coaches.

"I'm not the most confident player," he said. "The light bulb hasn't completely gone on yet. I still have trouble with my confidence a little bit. I know I can play with everyone but I don't play like I can sometimes. At Best Buy, I did play well but I know I can play a lot better.

"I am a mid-major player right now. If I was a high major school right now, I wouldn't take me. But I think I'll get to the point where I can play with anyone. What are they looking for? They want to see me have the ball in my hands on the perimeter and show them that I can make big plays, that I'm a point guard in a 6-foot-6 body. What impresses the coaches the most is I can consistently shoot from anywhere on the court."

O'Brien has offers from Florida Gulf Coast and Elon. He has interest from Northern Illinois, Illinois State, Loyola, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Belmont and Lafayette. Once he achieves a qualifying ACT score, he can expect more offers. Notre Dame is his dream school. His goal is to land a Big 10 scholarship.

Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye consider O'Brien, 6-foot-7 Nathan Taphorn of Pekin and 6-foot-7 Alec Peters of Washington, Illinois, as the three best shooters among all of the wing forwards in the class of 2013.

"O'Brien is the most athletic of these three players and has tremendous offensive versatility," Roy Schmidt said. "That is because he handles the ball well and is a great passer both in transition and when set from the top of the key. He has proven he can drill shots from beyond the three-point arc."

He is a point guard in a 6-foot-6 body because, when he was younger and only 6-foot-2, he learned guard skills. His father is 6-foot-6 so he always felt his son would grow. But the youngster never lost the feel for ball-handling and passing like a guard. He grew to 6-foot-4 after his sophomore year, then to 6-foot-6 as a junior.

"He is a match-up nightmare for a lot of people," Mundelein coach Dick Knar said. "He works in the post with both hands and can shoot threes. He also is a shot blocker with long arms and great timing."

Weinstein describes O'Brien as a "huge sleeper who is just starting to scratch the surface as to how good he can be. At the worst, he is a mid-major. But he is the kind of kid who could blow up to major Division I. He is very intriguing because he can do so many things at 6-foot-6. His best days are ahead of him. I'd like to see where he is at the end of July."

O'Brien will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills in front of Division I coaches against the best competition in the country. In June, he will participate in the Riverside-Brookfield tournament and team camps at Loyola and Northern Iowa. In July, he will compete in major AAU events in Orlando and Las Vegas.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm at 7 12 right now," he said. "I'm still scratching the surface of how good I can be. I need more athleticism. I'm working on my body. I have the skill set. Now I need my body to improve.

"The main thing I'm working on is my jump shot. I love to go against better teams and better players. It shows you where you are as a team and personally. When I play against kids who are going to high Division I schools, it motivates me, knowing I can do that, too. My goal is to get offers from major Division I schools."

What about Notre Dame? He's an O'Brien, right? His grandfather played basketball at Notre Dame. So far, however, the Irish haven't expressed any interest. "If they showed interest in me, I'd jump on it and work my butt off to try to get there," he said.

O'Brien works out five or six days a week. He lifts weights under the direction of personal trainer three days a week. He is beginning to get stronger but he weighs only 190 pounds and hopes to weigh 205 as a senior, 215 in college.

He enjoys the recruiting process and is looking forward to the 2012-13 season because, with O'Brien, Northern Iowa-bound guard Robert Knar and the entire starting lineup returning, Mundelein figures to rank among the top teams in the state. But the Mustangs have big challenges ahead.

"We've never won a sectional. That's our first goal. We've lost to Warren six times in the last two years. They've knocked us out of the state tournament the last two years," O'Brien said.

"I regret how we went about doing some things last season. We had 10 juniors on the team. We knew in the back of our minds that we had next year. We kind of let that overtake last year's team. We were more focused on next year. Now it is this year. We have a new mindset. This is the last go-round for the whole team. You can tell the difference in open gym and the weight room. Kids are more intense, more hungry, more motivated. This is our last year."

O'Brien has no timetable for the recruiting process. He will wait and be patient because he is convinced that, if he plays as well as he thinks he can play, he will receive more Division I offers. He said he will wait until at least November or perhaps later before making a decision.

"Now I'm just enjoying the process," he said. "It can get stressful and overwhelming. But only 10 percent of all athletes get an opportunity to do this. So I'm enjoying it. Ten years from now, I'll think it was really cool."

With push for playoff seeding in full force, Fire head to Philadelphia with key absences

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With push for playoff seeding in full force, Fire head to Philadelphia with key absences

There aren’t many easy games left on the Fire’s schedule, but Saturday’s game in Philadelphia appears to be one of the more winnable games remaining even if it is on the road.

The Union have a respectable 7-4-3 home record, but are out of the playoff race and are winless in six straight. The Fire hope to pick up a second straight road win, keep pace with New York City FC and stay ahead of red-hot Atlanta in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The game will be televised on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

While on paper the game is winnable, the Fire will once again be significantly shorthanded in midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho are both out with injuries. Schweinsteiger will miss his third straight game while Juninho will be out for two in a row. The Fire beat D.C. United 3-0 with Dax McCarty pairing with Drew Conner in central midfield last weekend.

With Joao Meira returning from injury as a sub in that win against D.C., coach Veljko Paunovic could run a similar lineup to the one from last week or elect to go with three centerbacks in an altered formation. Either way, the Fire remain without key pieces during a time of year when the team wants to be hitting its peak with the playoffs just over a month away.

“You want to get your top 11 group on the field together so they can get games, but if that’s not the case then you can also get guys experience and you can get younger guys in games that mean something and that matter because there’s no substitute for experience,” McCarty said. “You can’t replicate that in training. Guys like Drew Conner, guys like Djordje (Mihailovic). Those guys that are going to be very important for us in our playoff push and our depth heading into the playoffs.

“That’s the reason why depth is so important in MLS because while you would love to be able to count on your first 11 every single time you step on the field, (but) that’s not the case. I think we’ve seen that throughout the whole season. I don’t think we’ve had our first 11 group on the field together for months so you want depth and obviously it’s important to get guys healthy."

The extent of Schweinsteiger’s injuries hasn’t been clear. He had a bruise on his calf from a collision during the match in Montreal on Sept. 2, but also has a thigh injury. Schweinsteiger appeared to be nearing a return last week when he was running and working out in training separate from the group, but he was not at training on Tuesday or Wednesday this week, which implied a setback.

When asked about Schweinsteiger’s status, Paunovic has remained coy.

“Basti is very important for the team,” Paunovic said. “We want him as soon as possible. We will provide all the help that we can. As soon as we can have him back it’s going to be very important for the team. Also during that time we have guys who are prepared and ready and want to step in.”

Everyone knows he is a key absence, but the team has a solid 2-1-3 record without him this year.

“It doesn’t take a genius to see the positive attributes that he brings to the team,” McCarty said of Schweinsteiger. “He’s been one of our best players and obviously he’s a focal point for the way that we do things, not only defensively, but attacking as well. He’s a guy who teams have to account for whenever he’s on the ball. His vision, his ability to make plays within the game, knowing what the game needs and what time, you can’t substitute that. It makes my job easier, it makes our strikers’ jobs easier, so it’s a big loss not having him on the field.”

Chicago Fire at Philadelphia Union

Where: Talen Energy Stadium (Chester, Penn.)

TV: CSN + (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (14-9-6, 48 points), Union (8-12-9, 33 points)

Nerds in Sports Podcast: Being a 'professional nerd' and Star Wars theories about Rey's parents

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Nerds in Sports Podcast: Being a 'professional nerd' and Star Wars theories about Rey's parents

On this edition of Nerds in Sports, we talk with io9.com senior editor Rob Bricken.

Rob explains how he juggles being a fan with being a ‘professional’ nerd, how he came to run io9.com, plus his theory on why Rey’s parents are in Star Wars may shock you.

Kevin Anderson and Michael Piff co-host. We are Nerds. In sports.

Listen to the Nerds in Sports Podcast here.