Fire, Aston Villa prepared for competitive match Saturday

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Fire, Aston Villa prepared for competitive match Saturday

Itll be hard for Saturdays match against Aston Villa to match up with the Fires international friendlies of 2011 a rousing 3-1 loss to Englands Manchester United before 61,308 at Soldier Field and a 1-0 defeat against Mexicos popular Guadalajara Chivas before a near-sellout (18,224) at Toyota Park.

The Man U matchup proved to be something special. The Fire, struggling badly at Major League Soccer play at the time, scored first and won the hearts of the crowd before succumbing to one of soccers legendary clubs with reserves on the pitch. That match couldnt be topped, but any time Chivas visits its a popular attraction.

Aston Villa doesnt have the Chicago following that Man U and Chivas do. Still, the Villans have a rich history as one of the oldest clubs in Europe. Aston Villa was founded in 1874 and has won 19 domestic titles, including seven in England's first division and seven in the FA Cup.

Since its first season in 1998, the Fire have played 19 such international friendlies against clubs from England, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Scotland and Poland. The Fire are 6-10-3 in those matches but 2-1 vs. EPL teams. Prior to losing to Man U, the Fire defeated Derby County 1-0 at Soldier Field in 1999 and whipped Everton 2-0 at Toyota Park in 2008.

Needless to say, the Fire are happy to take a break from MLS action for another crack at an English Premier League team, and Aston Villa will be playing in Chicago for the first time (7:30 p.m., CSNChicago.com live stream).

"Games like this are always exciting," said Fire coach Frank Klopas at Fridays pre-game press conference at a downtown Chicago hotel. "We get to face a team from one of the best leagues in the world. Its a great opportunity to see how weve improved, and it gives our fans a chance to see an historic club with some real quality players."

Remember, though, that its still an international friendly. The Fire are or should be in mid-season form while Aston Villa is only two weeks into preseason training for its next EPL season.

"Aston Villa is not fit like us," said Fire defender Arne Friedrich. "Our problem is that weve got to mix up our team a bit. We havent played this lineup before, so itll be a tight game."

Klopas wouldnt say just what his lineup will be, but hell rest any regulars with injury problems and use the match to see what young players could be helpful in the second half of the MLS campaign.

"Well put out a competitive team," promised Klopas. Friedrich, the veteran German center back, will play because he wants to improve his fitness. Alex, the Brazilian midfielder who joined the Fire last month, should play big minutes because hes still adjusting to a new team.

Young defender Hunter Jumper and two players with offensive potential who have been basically reserves so far Rafael Robayo and Orr Barouch could improve their playing time for the rest of the season with a good performance on Saturday. The Fire are coming off a 1-0 road loss to the New York Red Bulls in MLS play on Wednesday.

Aston Villa will be playing the second of a three-game tour against MLS clubs. The Villans defeated the Philadelphia Union 1-0 on Wednesday and will visit the Portland Timbers next Tuesday.

"The heat was really hard for us in Philadelphia," said Villa manager Paul Lambert, "and itll be the same here. Itll be another test, and we have to be ready. (MLS) is very strong. It has real good players. Its a league you shouldnt under-estimate. Its players are getting better, and there is no such thing as an easy game."

Friedrich participated in many such international friendlies while playing in Europe, but most of those were in his teams preseason. Thats not the case with the Fire.

"You cant compare, because were in the middle of our season and dont need (these kinds of matches)," he said. "Wed have some problems if these other leagues were in their seasons, because their teams are tactical, better educated. Itll be very good to see if we can compare with these teams or not."

Aston Villa is coming off a down season, having finished 13th in the EPL standings. Still, its roster includes Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given and England striker Darren Bent as well as Eric Lichaj and Brad Guzan, who were part of the Fires Premier Development League program before moving to Europe.

Saturdays match will kick off a big weekend for international soccer in Chicago. On Sunday Italys AS Roma and Polands Zaglebie Lubin will collide in another international friendly at Wrigley Field. Roma just signed U.S. national team player Michael Bradley, son of first Fire coach Bob Bradley.

Preview: White Sox start series at Twins tonight on CSN

Preview: White Sox start series at Twins tonight on CSN

 

The White Sox take on the Twins on Friday, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jose Quintana (8-8, 2.97 ERA) vs. Ricky Nolasco (4-8, 5.40 ERA)

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Preview: Cubs host Mariners today on CSN

Preview: Cubs host Mariners today on CSN

The Cubs take on the Seattle Mariners on Friday, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 12:30 p.m.. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester (10-4, 3.09 ERA) vs. Hisashi Iwakuma (11-6, 3.96 ERA)

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Are Cubs done dealing? ‘Wouldn’t put anything past’ Theo

Are Cubs done dealing? ‘Wouldn’t put anything past’ Theo

Are the Cubs done dealing? Theo Epstein might be the baseball executive you’d least want to play poker against, and his team didn’t stop after winning 97 wins last season – committing almost $290 million to free agents – or hold onto the organization’s top prospect when the New York Yankees wanted Gleyber Torres in the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade.

“I wouldn’t put anything past him,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said.

That win-now impulse led the Cubs to Chapman, who instantly raised the energy level at Wrigley Field on Thursday night just by walking in from the bullpen, wowing more than 40,000 fans with his 100-mph heat and getting a four-out save to close out a 3-1 win over the White Sox.

“As fans of the game, you always see what Aroldis does,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “If he’s pitching, and you’re flipping through the channels, you stay on him just to see what he does, because he’s that type of player. What he does for our bullpen now is just incredible.”

This is the blueprint for October with enough timely hitting, a quality start from John Lackey, Pedro Strop working the seventh inning and manager Joe Maddon calling for Chapman to replace Hector Rondon with a runner on third and two outs in the eighth. Chapman threw Melky Cabrera six straight fastballs that registered between 98.6 and 102.3 mph on MLB.com’s Gameday, striking him out swinging.

“I was ready,” Chapman said through temporary translator/catcher Miguel Montero said. “I’m pretty pumped to be part of it.”

While the Cubs unveiled grand plans to construct a future World Series winner, Bosio became the no-nonsense foreman supervising a crew of veterans, short-timers and sign-and-flip guys.

Ex-manager Dale Sveum and coaches like Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode installed the game-planning system and did the grunt work to build up Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, putting in all that effort only to see them shipped off to playoff contenders in trade-deadline deals.

That roster churn yielded Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Strop, Justin Grimm, Carl Edwards Jr., Addison Russell, Hammel returning as a free agent and a trade chip (minor-league outfielder Billy McKinney) used in the Chapman deal.

“To be able to get a guy like him is a big step for the organization,” Bosio said. “It definitely sent ripple effects to everybody who’s a Cubs fan. I got so many phone calls and text messages.

“This one got a lot of people’s attention. Not just in baseball, but all over the world. He’s a headline guy coming to a headline city.”

Like virtually everyone else, the Cubs are looking for younger starting pitchers who come with years of club control, because right now only Hendricks and Jon Lester can be penciled into the 2018 rotation (when the $155 million lefty will be 34 years old).

The Cubs also can’t ignore the offense, even after pouring so much capital into their lineup, because Jason Heyward’s .632 OPS ranks 151st out of the 157 qualified major-league hitters, Montero is hitting .198, Willson Contreras will be making rookie adjustments and Kyle Schwarber’s left-handed presence will be missed even more against elite pitching in October.

If the Yankees decide to sell another rental player – and the Cubs are willing to mortgage their farm system – Carlos Beltran would be a good fit as a switch-hitter with an excellent track record as a playoff performer (16 homers, 40 RBI and a 1.155 OPS in 52 postseason games).

“There’s still a good amount of time before the trade deadline,” Epstein said this week. “So we’re going to engage with every other team and see if there’s an opportunity to get better. Either tweaks to the roster now, but I’d say it’s more focused on getting additional depth for this season and possibly making a move that makes sense for our longer-term picture, next season and beyond.”

The Cubs have until Monday afternoon’s non-waiver deadline to try to complete the World Series puzzle. Why stop with Chapman during an all-in season?

“Now we’re the ones looking to add pieces, whether it be a bat or a pitcher,” Bosio said. “I wouldn’t put anything past ownership or the front office, because they know how much we’ve invested into this year, and how hard it is just to win a major-league game.”