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Fire open season Sunday looking for that nifty 50

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

PAGE 1 JOHNSON WITH FIRE

 

Photo by Jeff Vorva

Veteran Fire goalie Sean Johnson said the changes on the team are positive.

 

Preseason games are generally useless when trying to judge how a team is going to do in the regular season.

But for Chicago Fire fans, it’s the only body of work to base opinions on.

The team has a new general manager (Nelson Rodriguez), a new head coach (Veljko Paunovic) and a roster with a lot of new faces to get used to.

So when the Fire went through an unbeaten preseason of six matches – including a 2-0 victory Saturday over defending Major League Soccer champs Portland to win the Simple Invitational Championship – it gave followers a chance to dream about making it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

But now reality hits. The Fire opens the 2016 campaign hosting the New York City Football Club at 1 p.m. at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.

This will give people a clearer picture of what this team can do.

“Winning the first game is important but not crucial,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to lose a game over the course of the year. The way we look at it is that 50 points is pretty much the barometer for getting into the playoffs. We have broken the season down in bytes and we will approach the season in that way. To win at home, would be an energizing moment.

“It’s two marquee teams in the league. It will be an interesting first game.’’

The veteran of the team, goalie Sean Johnson, has looked around the locker room and has seen a lot of new teammates trying to learn Paunovic’s system.

“It’s a positive change for us and we’re adapting to it,” Johnson said. “We’re trying our best to get up to speed.’’

Rodriguez is not making the rookie mistake of getting too giddy over the preseason.

“Winning is nice and it was especially nice to win Saturday night,” Rodriguez said. “But 24 hours later, it meant nothing. This Sunday will be the real first test that the team faces. We still have to get better. But I’m satisfied with the progress we have demonstrated so far and the team has the capability to improve.

“We haven’t been punched in the face yet. We haven’t lost four games in a row yet. We haven’t lost 4-0 yet. We haven’t had the media criticize us yet. The real test of that character will come when we face genuine adversity. But for the moment, we’re very pleased with how the character of the group has come together.’’

Paunovic was happy with the team’s 5-0-1 preseason.

“The players are trying to do what we are asking and demanding,” Paunovic said. “They are doing it and they want to do it. And they believe it. And it shows it with how we performed in the preseason. They can see how the system can work.’’

But the players and coach meshing is something that may not work as easily during the regular season.

“Pauno’s style and demands are great,” the GM said. “But there is no substitute for time and experience in that setting. Five weeks is plenty long enough for preseason but it’s not the same as five months. Or five years. One thing that will benefit us in more time together. Now keep in mind that when you add or subtract a piece, you stunt that timeline a little bit.

“We are looking at Sunday as a microcosm of where we are. We need to do better in possession. We gave the ball away a little bit too easily. Our back line is still getting to know each other and will get better. We will limit chances against us. And I think there is room for us to generate even more opportunities on the offensive side of the ball.’’

New York, only in its second year of play, also has a new coach – Patrick Viera – who took over for Jason Kreis after a 10-17-7 debut in the MLS. Spain’s David Villa is the team captain.

The New York squad finished 5-1 in its preseason and beat the Reykjavik FC 2-1 on Saturday with Andrea Pirlo and Mix Diskerud scoring goals.

Last year, the Fire beat New York City 1-0 and the two teams followed with a 2-2 tie.

 

Red Stars/Fire notebook: Red Stars roll out 2016 schedule

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

The Chicago Red Stars, which will call Toyota Park in Bridgeview their home in 2016, will open the season April 16 in Houston and will make their home debut at 6 p.m. April 23 against Western New York,

The first homestand will continue the following weekend when first-year NWSL club Orlando Pride and Olympic gold medalist Alex Morgan comes to Bridgeview at 5 p.m. May 1.
 
The 20 game schedule includes a four-game regional matchup against back-to-back reigning NWSL Champions FC Kansas City, with two slated at Toyota Park on May 13 and Sept. 7.
Things could get exciting toward the end of the season when the final four games feature playoff semifinal contenders Seattle Reign FC, FC Kansas City (twice) and te Washington Spirit. The top four teams in the standings qualify for a spot in the NWSL playoffs.


The NWSL will also be taking a majority of August off due to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
 
The Red Stars begin their preseason in March with three matchups against Illinois State University, Notre Dame and Northwestern University.

 
United States Women’s National team members Christen Press and Julie Johnston return to Chicago in 2016 and are joined by U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who was acquired from the Boston Breakers during the offseason. Reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico will enter into preseason with the Red Stars after earning her first call-up by the U.S. National Team during January camp. 

Season tickets and flex packs are currently on sale, with individual tickets going on sale at 10 a.m. today. Red Stars season ticket memberships allow fans to experience Toyota Park tours, invitations to season ticket member events with the Red Stars team and discounts on merchandise and camps.

For more information about becoming a season ticket member, call 773-697-8699.
 
 Fire faces champs

The Chicago Fire, which opened the Simple Invitational in Portland, Oregon, with a 3-2 victory over Vancouver on Saturday, faced Minnesota on Wednesday night and will take on defending MLS champion Portland on Sunday.

First-year Fire coach Veljno Paunovic said he wants his team to treat the Portland game like all of the others.

“Our approach for every game is that we want to win,” he said. “We have to be aware of what we want to achieve at this point in the preseason and meet our goals for the long term. For us, every game is special and every opponent is special.’’

Against Vancouver, John Goossens scored with an assist from Matt Polster while Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike scored on penalty kicks.

 Discounted tickets available for opener

Premier tickets, usually $42, are available for $20 for the March 6 opener against New York at Toyota Park. Corner Kick tickets, which are usually $32, are available for $13 at   www.chicago-fire.com/cccfb.

'Shocking and overwhelming' deal sends Shipp to Montreal

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

Page 2 SHIPP

Photo by Jeff Vorva

The Fire traded Harry Shipp for cash

 

The Chicago Fire shipped out popular midfielder Harry Shipp and he didn’t take the news well.

“When I was told out of the blue that I would no longer be a member of the Fire, I immediately broke down and started crying,” Shipp said in an open letter to Chicago. “It was totally shocking and overwhelming. This club and this city have meant everything to me. Not just for the past two years, but since I started following the Fire over 15 years ago.’’

The Lake Forest native was traded Saturday to Montreal for general and targeted allocation money.

"Harry is a homegrown player and an obvious fan-favorite, which makes this trade more emotional than most,” said Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez. “However, we believe this trade will prove to be beneficial for our club and for Harry's career." 

Shipp, 24, had 10 goals and 14 assists in 66 games for the Chicago Fire during his two years with the club. He also made eight appearances for the Fire during Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play, helping the team reach the semifinals both years. Shipp initially signed with Chicago as a Homegrown Player on Jan. 9, 2014.

During the first day of camp, he was asked by the media about taking a leadership role with the team since he was a second-longest tenured player on the team.

Now he will learn a new team and new system.

“With this door closing, I am so grateful to the Montreal Impact and the city of Montreal for giving me this next opportunity in my career,” Shipp said. “Fortunately, I have a new outlet to direct my energy/focus and I plan on making the most of it.

I can’t wait to get to meet my new teammates, get to work, meet some of the fans, and do my best to learn a little French.’’

He added that he wished he could have helped the Fire more.

“My passion in the past two years was to help make soccer relevant again in Chicago,” Shipp said. “This is what got me out of bed every single morning. I wanted to look back 10 years from now and be proud of how I was able to contribute to the growth of this club and its interaction with the city of Chicago.

I wanted to continue to be a role model for kids growing up playing soccer in Chicago. There was no single part of this job I liked more than being able to relate to these kids and give them a realistic end-goal to dream for.

“Unfortunately all I was able to contribute was two of the statistically worst seasons in Fire history, and that genuinely breaks my heart more than you could imagine. I’m sorry that I was unable to do more for the city, because if anyone understands what this city deserves in a soccer club, it is me.’’

Acclaim for Accam in preseason win

David Accam had two goals to lead the Fire to a 4-2 preseason friendly last Thursday in Clearwater, Fla. Nick LaBrocca and Gilberto scored in the second half for the Fire (2-0).

"We're very happy because when you're working on concepts and you see that the team believes, tries to play and give their best in every game, in every session, it's very good for us,’’ Fire coach Veljko Paunovic. “I think that playing an MLS opponent is very hopeful for us. We believe that our guys did a great job in terms of following the game plan that we had and then giving it their best, all requirements that we have for our team. They played, they enjoyed the game, they knew how to compete, also they were organized, which is very important, and they were passionate about the game." 

 It gets Simple from here

The team is in Oregon and will open play in the Simple Invitational in Portland. The Fire plays the Vancouver Whitecaps at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Providence Park.

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: I hope the wonderful JRW parents get what they deserve

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

Columnsig924

 

The Jackie Robinson West parents and coaches are suing Little League International.

They are suing Evergreen Park Athletic Association Vice President Chris Janes.

They are suing ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.

They are suing former local Little League President Bill Haley (but I don’t think they are suing his Comets).

I look up at the heavens and am thankful they aren’t suing me.

In a nutshell, the 2014 JRW team won the United States championship portion of the World Series and became a feel-good story that year. That winter, Janes and the EPAA brought up allegations of residency cheating, which first fell on deaf ears at Little League International.

But then some Chicago coaches made noise about illegal drawing up of boundaries and the snoozing LLI woke up, took it seriously and stripped JRW of its title.

Now, in 2016, the parents are suing everyone they can for all kinds of reasons.

Janes already told DNAinfo that the suit was “laughable.’’

And to me, having Stephen A. Smith’s life’s a little uncomfortable brings a smile to my face.

What’s not funny is that a lot of people may have to shell out money for lawyers to put a stop to this thing.

During some of this ugliness, I wrote some columns with critical things toward the JRW folks so I was happy that we weren’t named in the lawsuit.

For that, I am eternally grateful to the wonderful parents of the JRW and to show my gratitude, I will not break bad on them in this column.

I will not say that they are a bunch of babies whose hands were caught in the cookie jar and are blaming the cookie jar.

I will DEFINITELY not tell them to get on with their lives and to stop putting the story back in the spotlight because it will hurt their kids more than help them. I won’t remind them that this story was all but forgotten with the passage of time and this is just going to bring back ill will and bad feelings.

I will not muse that the people who should be suing would be the kids who were legally in the district who never got to make the team because kids from Homewood and South Holland stole their spots.

I will not crack wise and say that if they win any money at all from this lawsuit, they should invest in maps and perhaps take a class in how to read them because South Holland is not in Chicago.

Nope…I will not do any of that.

I will wish the JRW parents the best of luck and I hope they get what they deserve.

(subhead) No-shows

Last Thursday, a Kennedy Cup playoff game was scheduled between Brother Rice and St. Rita. Fans filed in for an oddly-scheduled 7:55 p.m. game at Southwest Ice Arena and were ready for action.

The two teams were ready for action.

But the refs? Well, they weren’t ready for action. No referee showed up.

Oak Lawn’s Ed McElroy, who has lived 90 years, was there to watch a family member play and said “I’ve never seen anything like that before.’’

There must have been something in the air that night when it came to hockey in the Chicago area. Tens of thousands of hockey fans crammed the United Center only to find the Blackhawks not show up in the first period of a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars.

(subhead) Mad about gymnastics

Some of the top gymnasts in this weekend’s Illinois High School Association State Gymnastics Meet are mad. Or at least their names are.

Sandburg-Stagg coop sophomore Maddy Roe is representing the area.

Hinsdale South’s Maddie Nowak will also be there.

Glenbard West’s Maddie Diab qualified.

DeKalb’s Madison Hickey will stop by and compete.

And Prairie Ridge will double the madness with Maddie Solka and Maddy Kim.

JEFF VORVA'S EXTRA POINT -- Put that sex appeal and sizzle on hold for a while

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

Columnsig924

New Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez is building a team his way.

It might seem a little boring right now. He knows that.

He doesn’t care.

It’s his neck on the line and if he is going to turn things around, he has to do it the way he sees fit.

A lot of players that he is bringing to the United States to kick the ball around are not huge names. He is taking a practical approach to molding this team and big headlines are not what he is going for when signing guys.

 “Constructing this team is a marathon,” he said. “It’s more important to us to pursue our targets as we have them prioritized. At the end of the day, what the fan will remember long-term is whether you won or lost and how you played in those games. It’s easy to go for a public relations’ splash. That might excite some people in the short term. But as soon as they get on the field, that PR splash is forgotten.

“Our fans deserve a winner and we’re committed to build a winner. The sex-appeal and the sizzle will come later.’’

How much later?

Trying to scoop up a handful of mercury might be easier than to pin down sports officials on timelines these days.

In recent years, coaches and general managers have been burned when predicting a timeline for the return of an injured star athlete so most of them have just given up.

It’s the same way when it comes to the timeline of building a winner.

In the last six seasons, the local pro soccer club has missed the playoffs five times. In that span the team has twice more losses and ties (138) than wins (63).

Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic have been busy wheeling and dealing to try to bring a winning product to Bridgeview’s Toyota Park when the MLS season opens on March 6.

There are going to be a lot of new faces on this club and I have a hunch that getting to the playoffs might not be in the works this year. My timeline for that type of success is 2017 or 2018.

But these two are not using a timeline.

Rodriguez is already using the dreaded p-word – patience.

“Give us a chance to put our plan into action,” he said. “Then be a little patient as it starts to unfold.’’

Just like Cubs fans have to be patient?

“God bless the Cubs fan. God bless any one of them who has lived that long since their last championship,’’ Rodriguez said. “Look, I’m realistic. I won’t be here if it takes too long. I understand that and accept that. It’s about a 34-game season and hopefully making the playoff and building from there. It’s a process that is ongoing.’’

Process – that other p-word.

Paunovic knows that one, too.

“It’s a process,” he said. “We want to be ready from the start. We want to be ready to play with heart and character and always want to win. If we do that on the field, I know the fans will be very happy with that.

“I’m sure that on March 6, we will be ready to do that. We are not saying we will win everything but I want to be clear that we will always give our best in every game.’’

Will their best be good enough to reverse the recent trend?

Probably not yet.

But if Rodriguez is getting the right ingredients from abroad  -- sexy or not -- and the team can develop some players on its lowers levels, it might not be long before the Fire is playing postseason soccer again.