Homegrown star Shipp hoping to guide Chicago to first win of 2014

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EXCLUSIVE — On Saturday the Chicago Fire welcome the New England Revolution to Toyota Park (Watch live on NBCSN, 4 p.m. ET and online via Live Extra) with the hosts still searching for their first win of the 2014 Major League Soccer season.

Yet, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

After defeat on the opening day, new Chicago coach Frank Yallop’s has seen his side battle to five-straight draws as the Fire have come close time and time again to recording their first ‘W’ of the current campaign.

Despite no win in six, encouraging signs are there for all to see as Homegrown midfielder Harrison Shipp explains.

“It has been up and down, the last couple of game especially. Our last game up at Montreal, we played our best game of the season by far,” Shipp said. “It was our most complete game, we dominated possession, shots and every key stat. We played really well and probably should have been two or three up before they got their one good chance and they scored. It is all about building. It is a long season. We have a new coaching staff who are getting a hold of our strong traits are as a team and playing towards those. Even though we’ve had five-straight ties, the last couple of games have been really positive for us.”

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Shipp, 22, hails from Lake Forest, Ill. and has been a member of the Chicago Fire youth program and the Premier Development Team whilst he played out a stellar college career at the University of Notre Dame. I first came across the diminutive attacking midfielder in 2010, during his Freshman year of college, and even then you could tell the buzz and hype about Shipp was worthy of a future MLSer.

His play has translated effortlessly from leading the Fighting Irish to their first-ever NCAA Division I soccer championship last year, to the professional scene. A real box of tricks and able to drift in between midfield and attack, Shipp’s size at 5 foot 9 makes him a true playmaker able to open up the meanest of opposition defenses with a flick of his boot or swivel of the hips. Shipp explains that Chicago, and the Fire, are close to his heart.

“I have grown up here all my life” Shipp said of Chicago. “I went off to Notre Dame but that is still close enough that I would train with the team in the summer and play with the PDL team. I have been connected with the club for a long time, so it is great to reach that peak of being in the first team.”

Now he is in the first team, Shipp has yet to taste defeat as a member of the Fire squad in the first five games of his MLS career… he has yet to taste victory either. That’s something he and his teammates are working on ahead of their clash with New England this weekend.

“They are a good team. They have a lot of creative and technical guys in the midfield,” Shipp said of New England. “They like to go forward but hopefully we can exploit that by counter-attacking and there will definitely be spaces in front of their back four and hopefully in behind their back four to let us run in on goal.”

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What about this Chicago team? Under new coach Yallop, plenty of youngsters like Shipp and 20-year-old Benji Joya on loan from Santos Laguna have been given the chance to start and influence games from midfield. Their style is developing and with a possession based game preferred by Yallop, you can already see a new era being ushered in on the banks of Lake Michigan.

source: AP
Shipp, right, captained Notre Dame to their first-ever NCAA title in college soccer.

“We have guys who can pass through the midfield, guys who are willing to buy into a system, play simple and get in those good spots to find the pockets in-between midfield and defense,” Shipp said. “Then we have Quincy [Amarikwa] up top who is just going to battle until he drops. We are creating a lot of chances, we haven’t gone scoreless in any game this season and we had scored plenty of goals. Now we are just focusing on cleaning up some defensive things. We have given up a lot goals on set-pieces, so not giving up one in the last game at Montreal was a positive. Building off that and cleaning up those small details, we will figure out how to win some games.”

As for how Shipp plans to help with that, we’ve already seen from early glimpses in the Fire uniform that the Homegrown star can get on the ball and get things going.

Shipp has added two assists during his five starts, against D.C. United and New York, and plans to keep laying chances on a plate for his teammates.

“My goal going into every game is to create chances,” Shipp said confidently. “Whether that be in open play or from set pieces or shots I take myself, if I can create three or four good opportunities every game I am doing my job as a midfield player. Up until this point it has been pretty good, hopefully I can build on that and get some goals and more assists.”

With Shipp explaining the difference between the college and pro game as the increase in speed and being “forced to think farther steps ahead before you get the ball,” you sense he’s relishing the challenge of stepping up to the big leagues.

Remembering how Shipp played when I saw him during his college days four years ago, I asked him if any players in particular have shaped his style. One player sprung to my mind before I asked the question, Shipp’s answer reaffirmed my thought.

“My favorite player for a while has been Andres Iniesta from Barcelona,” Shipp said. “I’ve tried to model my game to be something similar and obviously not just like him, but I admire what he does on the ball and the way he plays. So he is someone I have really looked to.”

After a bright start to his career in MLS and with many keeping an eye on the hugely talented attacker rolled off the Chicago Fire production line, you’ll likely be hearing Shipp’s name for many years to come. With MLS veterans like Mike Magee and Jeff Larentowicz around to keep an eye on him, (Shipp praised Chicago’s veteran core for helping out their younger players) Shipp is in good hands.

What about this season and Chicago’s hopes of making the postseason? Shipp is optimistic the postseason can come to town during his Rookie campaign.

“I wasn’t on the team last year, but they were so close to reaching the playoffs and a lot of the guys are back,” Shipp said. “It is one of the things you strive for every year and I think we could have had four or five wins from our games up until this point but we feel unlucky and given up some set piece goals that shouldn’t have gone in. We do think the playoffs are a realistic goal and hopefully we do achieve that.”

How important is Eden Hazard to Chelsea?

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Can Chelsea afford to lose Eden Hazard?

Hazard, 26, continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid this summer for a potential world-record fee of over $125 million.

[ MORE: Conte hails Eden Hazard

This season the Belgian winger has been unplayable at times, particularly in recent months, and he is on the verge of leading Chelsea to a second Premier League title in the last three seasons.

Yet, with rumors of Hazard leaving Stamford Bridge persisting it is worth contemplating just how important he is to Antonio Conte‘s side despite the Italian claiming his star winger is “priceless” in a bid to wave off interest.

From a numbers perspective Hazard’s importance is clear. He has scored 11 PL goals and has four assists, with Diego Costa the only other Chelsea player to be involved in more goals with the Spanish international scoring 17 times and adding five assists. Beyond this season, Hazard has scored and assisted on more goals than any other current Chelsea player since he arrived in 2012-13.

There’s no doubting Hazard’s influence runs deeper than goals and assists.

When he picks up the ball defenders backtrack and even when they get close they have no idea which way Hazard will turn. The only way to try and stop him, as we’ve seen recently in their FA Cup quarterfinal win against Manchester United, is by hacking him down at every opportunity. With so much focus on stopping Hazard, the likes of Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian have been able to flourish and Conte reshaped his Chelsea side to a 3-4-3 with wing backs to get the best out of Hazard.

Hazard is back to his best with confidence flowing through his game just like it did in the 2014-15 campaign as he led Chelsea to the PL title and was crowned as the PFA Player of the Year.

However, there is a lingering sense that if Real Madrid did offer a huge sum of money this summer then perhaps Chelsea would accept the deal. Last season Hazard was way off the pace as Jose Mourinho’s time at Chelsea unraveled quickly and he was lambasted by fans as one of the star players who turned against the manager.

There’s no doubting Hazard is up there with N'Golo Kante and Costa as Chelsea’s top players this season but arguably he would be the most replaceable star. Without Costa’s goals and presence up top, Chelsea would be struggling. Without Kante’s incredible rate of interceptions and tackles in midfield, they’d be less effective in launching devastating counters.

When Hazard was missing through injury in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Stoke in their last PL outing, Willian came into the team and scored a free kick and alongside Pedro they provided plenty of chances for Costa and others to score. Hazard wasn’t missed but there’s no doubting Chelsea is a better team when he’s in it.

On paper Hazard is entering the prime years of his career and perhaps the pull of Real Madrid could be too great if the Spanish giants do indeed intend to chase him hard in the summer. Of course, Real already have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top but if the Zinedine Zidane’s side bought Hazard then he’d obviously start.

The only thing he has left to achieve with Chelsea is win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from that, he’s proven himself as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League time and again.

It will be intriguing to see what happens with Hazard this summer.

Injuries, suspensions still an issue for busy Man United

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Manchester United have been struggling with suspensions and injuries and the international break hasn’t provided any respite.

[ MORE: United announce US tour dates ]

Both Zlatan Ibrahmovic and Ander Herrera are suspended for Saturday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) at Old Trafford, plus Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Maroune Fellaini are all doubtful.

Jones injured his toe while on international duty as his United teammate Smalling tackled him in training, while Smalling has been spotted in a knee brace after picking up a knock in England’s win against Lithuania on Sunday. Fellaini also suffered a toe injury in Belgium’s draw with Greece on Saturday and has been released from international duty.

Rooney hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth on Mar. 4 after suffering a training ground injury with Jones and Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s UEFA Europa League win against Rostov on Mar. 16.

Oh, Jose. When it rains it pours…

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All of this injury news has been made more concerning given United’s busy month coming up as Mourinho’s men have nine games in April as they push hard to finish in the top four in the PL and reach the UEFA Champions League.

After the game against West Brom they face Everton at home and Sunderland away in a seven day stretch before heading to Anderlecht on Apr. 13 for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Sandwiched in-between their two games with Anderlecht they host Premier League leaders Chelsea and then finish off April with trips to Burnley and Manchester City before hosting Swansea City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Mourinho will be hoping the vast majority of these players will be available for the busy stretch ahead as his large squad cope with a season-long struggle of juggling PL, domestic cup and European action.

Defensively he still has Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly to slot in but he could be forced to draft in youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah into midfield with so many games coming up in a short space of time.

United will be stretched to the limit as they aim to finish the season strong.

Lionel Messi suspended after abusing linesman

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Argentina will be without five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi for their next four games.

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On Tuesday FIFA announced that Messi, 29, has been suspended for four international game as the Barcelona forward was found guilty of verbally abusing an assistant referee in the second half of Argentina’s crucial 1-0 win against Chile last Thursday.

Messi, of course, scored the winning penalty kick in that game.

Messi — the captain of Argentina and their leading all-time goalscorer with 58 goals — will miss the game against Bolivia on Tuesday, plus Argentina’s friendly with Brazil this summer in Australia and also two key World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela in August and September.

Argentina currently sit in third-place in CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but are far from locks in their quest to qualify for the World Cup. That task has just got a lot harder after losing their talisman for sending verbal abuse at a linesman.

Look, it would be great to see abuse from players towards officials stamped out but how many times have we all seen players across the game screaming obscenities at officials in an aggressive manner? It seems like Messi may be a little hard done by and that FIFA has used the biggest name on the planet and made an example of him.

Below is the statement in full from FIFA on Messi’s suspension.

The FIFA Disciplinary Committee – in application of articles 77 a) and 108 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (FDC) – has reached a decision in relation to the case of Lionel Messi following an incident that occurred during the match between Argentina and Chile on 23 March 2017 as part of the qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™:

Footballer Lionel Messi has been found guilty of violating art. 57 of the FDC for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee.

As a result, Lionel Messi will be suspended for four official matches and sanctioned with a fine of CHF 10,000. The first match for which the sanction will apply is the next fixture in the preliminary competition of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ between Bolivia and Argentina, which will be played today, 28 March. The remainder of the sanction will be served over Argentina’s subsequent FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.

This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s previous rulings in similar cases.

Both the player and the Argentinian Football Association have been informed of the decision today.

After late goals broke Panama’s hearts in 2013, US returns

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PANAMA CITY (AP) With Panama about 90 seconds from reaching a playoff against New Zealand for a World Cup berth, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in second-half stoppage time four years ago to give the already qualified United States a 3-2 win and eliminate the hosts.

“You felt this place dip,” Jozy Altidore recalled Monday. “You heard people crying.”

The U.S. will be back Tuesday night in a match that matters for both teams. The Americans routed Honduras 6-0 Friday at home and are looking for a second straight win in World Cup qualifying under coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after an 0-2 start in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

Before a light workout at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, American players thought the Panamanians might still have that 2013 match on their minds. Panama needed a win, but the late U.S. goals kept Mexico alive and El Tri went on to reach the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Panama has never advanced to the World Cup.

“If we were smart enough, we wouldn’t have broken their hearts. Pretty stupid, if you ask me,” Arena said humorously. “You think Mexico would have scored a goal at the end of that game?”

Panama opened the hexagonal, as the final round is called, with a 1-0 win at Honduras and a 0-0 tie at home against Mexico, and then lost 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago. Five players from that 2013 loss to the U.S. were in the starting lineup for Friday’s defeat.

“It was obviously probably pretty devastating for the players,” said American midfielder Sacha Kljestan, also among those on the field that night. “I’m sure it still means a lot to them.”

Mexico leads the hexagonal with seven points, followed by Costa Rica with six, Panama with four and the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras with three each. The top three nations qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, and the fourth-place team again goes to a playoff, this time against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“The reality of the situation that we’re in and the reality of the start that we had is we’re not playing with house money,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “We’re not in a situation where we can just say, great, we took our three points at home, whatever we get on the road is extra. No, we have to come here and take points. We want three. We’re going to play in a way that gives us a chance, a big chance to get three.”

LINEUP CHANGES

Arena predicted as many as four or five changes to his starting lineup. There will be at least two.

John Brooks will miss the match because of a sinus infection and Sebastian Lletget is out with a foot injury. The players who replaced them against Honduras could start, Tim Ream for Brooks in central defense and Alejandro Bedoya in place of Lletget in right midfield.

Jermaine Jones, back from a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation, could enter in a central midfield role, which would push Christian Pulisic to the left flank in place of Darlington Nagbe.

APPROACHING A RECORD

After scoring his second international hat trick Friday, Clint Dempsey has 55 goals, two shy of Landon Donovan’s American record.

“Yeah, it’s on your mind,” the 34-year-old Dempsey said. “But if it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t.”

OLD FRIENDS

Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, a holdover from the 2013 game, played for Arena on the LA Galaxy from 2013-15.

“Jaime Pinedo is one of the finest people I’ve ever met in the game,” Arena said. “We enjoyed him very much. Our fans loved him.”

WEATHER-WISE

After playing on a cool, damp night in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend, the U.S. will deal with far different conditions. The game-time temperature is forecast to be 80 degrees with high humidity.

Panama’s players also may not be used to the heat, given some play in New York, Seattle, Toronto, Switzerland, Romania and other cool climates.