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MLS to throw a five-day soccer party

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Chicago Fire stars Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger were voted in as starters for the MLS All-Star game, which takes place Wednesday at Soldier Field. Schweinsteiger will serve as captain. 

 

Soccer fans are going to be in heaven starting this weekend.

Admittedly, Chicago is a Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks town with little fanfare going to soccer. And as well as the Chicago Fire has been playing, if you walk down the streets of Chicago and the suburbs and asked people to name two or three Fire players, smart money is that a large percentage of people will fail that test.

But those in the Chicago area who are passionate about soccer? That’s a whole different story. Some of them could probably name every player on the Fire roster from the last 20 years.

Chicago and Bridgeview will be the centers of the soccer universe for a five-day stretch starting Saturday and those who love soccer should have a lot of fun and those who are marginal fans should be entertained, too. Many of the side events are free.

Some of the festivities include:

(bullet) The PrivateBank Fire Pitch in Chicago will host a viewing party Saturday night and guests will be able to watch Real Madrid against FC Barcelona, the Chicago Fire against Sporting KC and the LA Galaxy against the Seattle Sounders.

(bullet) North Beach in Chicago will host MLS Beach Soccer from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

(bullet) There will be a skills challenge presented by FIFA 18 from 5-to-7 p.m. Sunday at the Private Bank Fire Pitch.

(bullet) The Men In Blazers will host a podcast at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater.

(bullet) There is a MLS All-Star Concert at 8 p.m. Monday at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island featuring X Ambassadors.

(bullet)The MLS Homegrown Team challenges Chivas de Guadalajara’s Under-20 team at 7 p.m. at Toyota Park.

(bullet) Finally, the main event. The MLS All-Stars battle Real Madrid at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Soldier Field. The game will be broadcast on FS1, UniMas, TSN and TVA Sports domestically as well as across 170 countries globally.

The Fire’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolic were voted in by fans as starters for the All-Stars.

“I know how special it is to compete against Real Madrid,” said Schweinsteiger, and international star from Germany. “I think our players and fans will enjoy the experience.’’

Fire players Dax McCarty and Johan Kappelhof were also selected as reserves.

Other starters are Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto), Miguel Almiron and Greg Garza (Atlanta), Kaka (Orlando City), David Villa (New York City FC), Tim Howard (Colorado), Graham Zusi (Kansas City) and DaMarcus Beasley (Houston). 

 

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra point: BRA-vo -- St. Laurence grad turned heads as fan and athlete

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Chris Koll models off a crazy outfit for a breast cancer awareness theme in November during a St. Laurence/Crete-Monee playoff football game.

If you are a high school senior male, you don’t just wake up one day and say “Hey! I’m going to the big football game today and I’ll wear a pink training bra, a pair of pink and white tight shorts and a big floppy hat. Oh, and I will paint the number ‘1’ on my stomach.’’

No, this kind of highbrow thinking takes planning.

St. Laurence grad, athlete and super fan Chris Koll, made it to 94 percent of the school’s football, basketball and baseball games in 2016-17.

OK, he was on the basketball team for all 29 of the Vikings games so he had to be there, but when it came to football and baseball games, he froze with those teams on some days and sweated with those teams on other days. He waited through rain delays and had to adjust his schedule with postponements.  

 He was with them for blowout regular season wins. He was with them for exciting postseason wins. And he was with them for heart-crushing, postseason losses – including the football team’s Class 6A state semifinal loss in Springfield and the baseball team’s 3-1 Class 4A Illinois High School Association state semifinal loss to Edwardsville on June 9 in Joliet.

And there was that crazy day that took some planning.

It was Nov. 5 and the Burbank resident was ready to show up to the school’s stadium for a second-round playoff football game against Crete-Monee.

Bra? Check.

Tight shorts? Check

Floppy hat? Check.

Guts to walk around hundreds of peers in that getup? Check and double check.

“When we came up with the theme about breast cancer awareness I started texting girls I knew for the bra,” he said. “I texted them on Tuesday and the game was Saturday. I was ready to go.’’


And he said he made 23 bucks when other students wanted to stuff that bra with singles.

He also made $5 on a bet for baseball season. The Vikings played four games in Arizona but he vowed he would attend every game the Vikings played in Illinois.

Now, it’s easy to be a super fan in football with a 9-to-14-game schedule. It’s a little tougher for basketball, but he was on the team bus all the time. He had to be there for all the games.

 

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But baseball? The late-afternoon starting times of many of the games and the weather make it a challenge to make every game. 

“I told the baseball team I was going to go to every game they played in Illinois and they told me I wouldn’t do it.  “Then I did it’

“I was just messing with them at first,” he added. “Then when they said I couldn’t do it, I wanted to prove I could. I won a $5 bet that I could do it. I wanted to prove them all wrong. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was so fun seeing them on the road and at home. It was just awesome.’’

When Koll was a freshman in 2013, he said his first game as a future super fan was Sept. 13 and the Vikings took a 2-0 record to St. Rita and lost 55-14.

 “We got killed,” he said. “That was when Rita was on their insane level. I remember watching it and it was just terrible. I was in the student section but I didn’t say anything. I was just at the top of the stands and just watched.’’

Year later, he was in the front – and sometimes the focal point – of the section.

As a fan and athlete, he has a unique perspective on the dynamics between the hecklers and the heckled.


“Being a fan was more my calling than being an athlete,’’ Koll said. “It was a nice change of pace being a fan during football season and playing during basketball season and being a fan against for baseball.  When people would say stuff to me during basketball season, I would just laugh. It doesn’t get in my head – I think it’s so funny.

“I know what I do as a fan to other people so I was getting a taste of my own medicine.’’

Koll is heading to the University of Illinois to major either in business or kinesiology.

And he wants to be a super fan for the Illini.

“That’s the goal – that’s the plan right now,” he said. “Freshman year I will definitely be at the home games and by junior and senior year, I’m going to try to figure something out to get to some road games, too.’’

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: EP comeback, Stack bring us some great baseball stories

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

 

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Supplied photo

Evergreen Park’s 10U Cal Ripken team celebrates its state championship on June 9 and is eyeing a World Series bid if it wins the regional tournament this weekend. 

 

 

At first, I was a little disappointed that none of the area’s high school summer league baseball teams were able to make it to regional semifinal action.

But summer baseball is what it is – a watered-down product because of travel teams. Wins and losses don’t matter much. It helps some improve on fundamentals. It benefits some players who are trying to catch their coaches’ attention, but that’s about it.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any good baseball stories out there this summer. I have two that are pretty cool.

Norris Field in Evergreen Park and the John Humphrey Sports Complex in Orland Park are about as far apart, distance-wise, as you can get in the Regional/Reporter coverage area yet a couple of terrific stories have developed at those two places courtesy of the Evergreen Park Boys Club 10U team and Orland Park resident Zachary Stack.

In Evergreen Park, Norris Field helped spawn a team that won the Illinois Cal Ripken State Tournament on June 9 and Wednesday night were scheduled to leave for Vincennes, Ind., for Ohio Valley Regional competition this week and weekend. And if these guys get through that, a bid to the World Series in Hammond, Indiana, is in order.

The roster of Max Bilas, Quinn Botta, Vinnie Burchett, Brendan Doran, Billy Duffner, Grady Elwood, Nik Hall, Billy Jacobsen, Caleb Keyser, Tyler Kummer, Joey Lombardo, Quinn Lyons, JD Maloney, Kevin Tomkins and coaches Terry Doran, Jim Hall, Jeff Keyser and Dave Kummer has no idea what to expect in Indiana with state champs from Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia competing.

“We’ll show up and play and play hard,” coach Jeff Keyser said. “There are teams from seven states and we have no idea how good they are. But if they all won their state tournaments, they have to be pretty good.’’

Evergreen Park is pretty good itself after dropping its first state tournament game in Mattoon, 5-4 in seven innings (10U regulation games go six innings) to Rosemoor, climbing back out of the loser’s bracket and beating Rosemoor 5-4 in seven innings and 10-1, according to Keyser.

 

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After a couple hours of riding back home, Evergreen Park Mayor Jim Sexton and some of his board members set up a parade for the state champs.

“We had a police escort and there was a fire truck and an ambulance,” the coach said. “People gathered on 95th Street and met us up at the park. It was a great community experience.’’

In Orland Park, Stack, a Marist student, stopped by a recent village board meeting to talk about his goals for raising money for a Challenger field to be built at the Humphrey Complex. Challenger fields are modified diamonds which help individuals with physical or intellectual challenges.

“One of my sister’s friends at Cardinal Bernardin School told me that he played a baseball game at a challenger’s field. I had played ball at that complex and was somewhat familiar with the field,” Stack explained. “When I found out that Orland Park didn’t have something like this, I knew that I wanted to change that.” 

“I’ve played baseball most of my life and I think it would be really cool if I could help make it possible for everyone to play ball in Orland Park.”

The cost to build the field will be in the $500,000 range and some village officials are getting behind the project.

 “When Zach brought his proposal to the village, we were immediately interested,” said trustee Pat Gira, chair of the village’s Recreation and Parks Committee. “Orland Park has a very active, long running special recreation program with many Special Olympians but we’ve never had a challenger ballfield.”

 “I’m very proud of Zach and the initiative he’s shown,” added trustee Dan Calandriello. “Adding a challenger field for our athletes with special needs is huge. This opens up a whole new world for the village’s special recreation program.”

Village officials said that Stack is reaching out to other young athletes from Marist and Carl Sandburg High Schools asking for their help to raise funds for the project.

“We’re thinking of a walk or a run, some type of kickoff celebration and reaching out to local foundations and businesses,” Stack said. “Our first event will be hosting a booth at the Taste of Orland Park (Aug. 4-6) where we will accept donations and spread the word about what we’re doing.”

These are two great stories and they are far from over.

 

 

If Fire wants to win a title, it must roll on the road

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Things are looking up for David Accam and the Chicago Fire and after posting an MLS-tying best 11-3-5 mark, it is possible this team is championship material.

 

As the Chicago fire returns from the CONCACAF Gold Cup break tied with Toronto with the best record in Major League Soccer, the question is in the back of most fans’ mind.

Can this team win it all?

It’s a fair question.

With an 11-3-5 record before the break, the Fire is making believers out of a lot of people. The team may have had the worst record in the MLS for two straight seasons heading into the 2017 campaign, but the front office, headed up by general manager Nelson Rodriguez, brought in three new pieces – Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger – that have helped turned this team into a contender.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Fire fans were hoping the team could just finish in the top six of the East and make the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

But that changed in recent weeks as the team went on an 11-game unbeaten streak heading into the break. Now it’s not all that crazy to expect a deep run in the playoffs and possibly snag its second MLS title – the first coming in 1998, when the team entered the league with a bang.

The 2017 team seemingly has it all. Nikolic has an MLS-best 16 goals and could give the league’s all-time mark of 27 (set by three players) a run for the money.

David Accam has 10 goals and the most legitimate complaint is that perhaps a few more Men in Red could get involved in scoring as well.

The defense and goalie Matt Lampson have been effective.

Perhaps the team could use another player or two to shore up the depth, but just about every contender can say that.

Alas, the one area that the Fire absolutely must get better at is its play on the road.

While Toyota Park in Bridgeview has actually become the “fortress” that Nikolic said it must become at the beginning of the season, the road is still unkind.

Chicago is 9-0-1 at home and has outscored opponents a jaw-dropping 27-4 in those games.

The team is 2-3-4 on the road and has been outscored a jaw-tightening 15-10.

That includes a humiliating 4-0 loss to expansion Atlanta (before the team picked up Schweinsteiger) and a 2-2 tie against Portland on July 5 in which the Fire had a 2-1 lead in the second half.

Throw in a shootout loss in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to a United Soccer League middling team -- FC Cincinnati -- which doesn’t count in the MLS standings and it’s obvious the team needs a little more spark away from Bridgeview.

Eight of its last 15 regular season games are on the road including four of its next five. The Fire visits the New York City FC on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, Sporting Kansas City on July 29, come home against the New England revolution on Aug. 5, head to Ohio for a match against the Columbus Crew on Aug. 12 and visit Montreal on Aug. 16.

And the schedule maker didn’t give the team a break on the next home game. The team won’t be very well rested when it faces Toronto Aug. 19, ending a three-game-in-eight-day stretch.

So second-year coach Veljko Paunovic knows there is a long road ahead.

“The best motivation is the next game,” he said. “That’s how we prepare. Next game, next game. It’s not a time to look behind you. Of course, we’re very happy to be in first place, but we motivate our guys to look at the next game, prepare for the next game and compete, give their best.

“The results with that approach are coming and what we have in this group is the hunger. Everyone is driven by the goal that we have this year, which is playoffs. I think the team has an even higher ceiling. Once we get to the playoffs, we have to set another goal, but we will talk once we are in the playoffs.”


 

Look for big changes in the Chicago Catholic League in 2018

  • Written by Frank Gogola

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Photo by Aaron FitzPatrick

Brother Rice football fans went wild after a 49-42 victory over Mt. Carmel in a Chicago Catholic League Blue game in September. Mt. Carmel will be moved to the Green division starting in 2018 and the future of that game is up in the air.

 

Chicago Catholic League football will have a new look in 2018 with Blue division mainstay Mount Carmel moving down to the Green division.

The realignment of the CCL football conference came as a result of the scheduled departures of three schools (Bishop McNamara, Wheaton St. Francis and football-only member Aurora Christian) in the 2018-19 school year. That loss also affects other sports, with changes to the number of divisions or number of teams in a division yet to be discussed among the coaches, athletic directors and principals.

Southwest Regional Publishing area teams affected by the football reorganization include De La Salle, St. Rita, Mount Carmel, Saint Laurence and Brother Rice.

Mount Carmel will face St. Laurence, which qualified for state the past three years and finished in the Class 5A and 6A state semifinals the past two seasons respectively, on a regular basis as it moves to the Green. De La Salle, Fenwick and Marmion are the other Green teams, with Montini moving up to the Blue.

“Either Montini or Mount Carmel, neither is an easy opponent,” said St. Laurence athletic director Tim Chandler. “After the success we had, we were ready to take on a more challenging schedule. One team doesn’t change our schedule, but overall it’s tougher top to bottom.”

Brother Rice and Mount Carmel had been Blue schools since 2003 – along with Loyola, Providence and St. Rita – and have a rivalry stretching back even further. Montini, which will replace Mount Carmel, beat Mount Carmel in 2016, so there’s little to no relief in the Blue schedule.

Still, Mt. Carmel is the team with the tradition and a team that everyone wants to knock off.

“It’s a shame,” said Brother Rice coach Brian Badke. “Not having that rivalry…you’re breaking some traditions. Rivalries with Aurora Christian or Montini, we’re never going to have that. Montini is a very good program. So, still, every game in the CCL is like a playoff game.”

The approved parity formula to determine divisions was 70 percent for CCL wins with added weight for wins against Blue teams, 15 percent for male enrollment and 15 percent for number of football players across all levels. Travel has been eliminated from conversations of making divisions. Realignment will be reviewed every two years.

The loss of Bishop McNamara, St. Francis and football-only member Aurora Christian to the Metro Suburban Conference in 2018-19 will drop the number of football teams from 18 to 15. There will be three divisions of five teams.

The Blue coaches were interested in spreading the Blue teams across two separate divisions to give those teams better chances to make the playoffs, Badke and Chandler said. Several coaches were in favor of North and South divisions, Badke said. The athletic directors, who were the voters, and principals wanted to keep the Blue schools together.

“The majority of the room felt the model the Blue coaches were pushing for was not parity,” Chandler said. “To just split up the Blue division was not putting our best teams in that division, which was the point of the parity model.”

Mount Carmel had the option to petition to move back up to the Blue, but declined to do so. A potential factor in that decision could be that the past four years have been Mount Carmel’s four lowest enrollments totals in the multiplier era, which began in 2005. The 2017 enrollment will be the lowest.

 In other CCL sports…

Earlier this year, there were CCL changes in basketball announced for the coming season,

The athletic directors voted in the winter to realign basketball on a parity model for 2017-18 and 2018-19 and to end the CCL tournament after four years.

There will be two nine-team divisions, but with St. Francis and Bishop McNamara leaving in 2018, the divisions will be unbalanced at nine and seven teams.

“We’ll play the first year that was agreed to and in place because St. Francis and Bishop Mac will still be here” Chandler said. “With them leaving at 2018, we’re going to have0 to come up with a new schedule this year to be in effect for 2018. They could talk and decide let’s just leave it as it is for one year.”

CCL baseball teams will need to fill more non-conference games with an approved schedule for 2017-18 and 2018-19 that lessens the number of conference games.

Blue teams will play 16 conference games instead of 21, Chandler said. They’ll play every Blue team twice and only two total crossovers instead of one crossover with every White team.

Chandler said he voted against the reduction of crossovers, which leaves St. Laurence (a team that took third in the state in Class 4A in the spring) with 19 non-conference games to fill.

Soccer will be in the second year of an approved schedule for the 2017-18 school year. A schedule for 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons had already been approved for four division of four teams, but there will be 14 teams instead of 16 starting in 2018-19 with St. Francis and Bishop McNamara’s departure.

“That’s going to have to change with losing two teams,” Chandler said. “I haven’t seen any models for that yet.”