Fire's depth being tested in busy stretch


Fire's depth being tested in busy stretch

The Fires bench is being tested now, no doubt about that.

Faced with his clubs third game in seven nights, coach Frank Klopas left attacking midfielder Sebastian Grazzini home for Saturdays road match against the Columbus Crew, starting Rafael Robayo in his place. He also gave Frederico Puppo a start up top in place of Dominic Oduro.

None of those moves worked out very well, as the Crew scored twice in the first half and then held on for a 2-1 victory. That result pulled the Crew (5-4-3) into a tie with the Fire (5-4-3) for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, suggesting theyll be battling each other for a playoff berth for the remaining two-thirds of the season.

And that might not be the only battleground for the long-time rivals. If both win their third-round matches in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, theyll collide in that competition on June 5 at Toyota Park. Thats entirely likely, as both face minor league opponents on Tuesday. The Fire face the Michigan Bucks, a member of the Premier Development League, in Pontiac, Mich., while the Crew take on the Dayton Dutch Lions.

As for Saturdays match, the Fire disappointed the 600 loyal fans who piled into 10 buses for the trip to Columbus a journey paid for by the club. The Crew, on a roll with a 3-0-2 record in its last five games, were like the Fire playing its third match in seven nights.

Columbus scored twice in the first half. Klopas then replaced Puppo and Marco Pappa with Oduro and Orr Barouch at the outset of the second half. The new combination generated some chances, but a header by rookie defender Austin Berry in the 71st minute was the only goal the Fire could muster.

"The fight, the character of the guys in the second half was tremendous," said Fire captain Logan Pause. "The guys who came on, the subs, were fantastic. Weve got a group of capable guys, not just our first 11."

Chances are Klopas will have to go deeper into his bench on Tuesday, because the changes on Saturday werent entirely satisfactory.

"We looked a little bit tired at times," said Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich, speaking on Klopas behalf after the match. "The guys battled through that. Mentally they were very strong. We could have gotten 2-2."

Instead the loss was the first to an Eastern Conference opponent in more than a year (a 1-0 defeat at Philadelphia on May 21, 2011 was the last).

The Fire will be playing its fourth game in 10 nights in its first Open Cup test of 2012. The club has made the 99-year-old tournament a high priority since winning the title in the epic inaugural season of 1998. The Fire has won the Dewar Cup four times and lost in the finals twice, the last being a 2-0 defeat to the Seattle Sounders last season.

All amateur and professional teams registered with the U.S. Soccer Federation are eligible for the Open Cup, and those not in MLS have to battle through preliminary rounds before getting a crack at the big-leaguers. The Bucks got their chance with a dramatic 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

The Riverhounds are in the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division, and the match was played in Bridgeville, Pa. Still, the PDL club advanced thanks to Stew Givens goal in second-half stoppage time. Givens was the PDLs defender of the year in 2011.

Though the Fire have a sterling 28-9-3 record in Open Cup play, the club hasnt won the summer-long tourney since 2006 when Dave Sarachan was the head coach. The other titles came in 2000 and 2003. In 14 seasons the Fire has reached the Open Cup semifinals eight times.

Bears Talk Podcast: What's next for Bears at QB after Brian Hoyer suffers broken arm?


Bears Talk Podcast: What's next for Bears at QB after Brian Hoyer suffers broken arm?

Lance Briggs, Alex Brown and Jim Miller break down where the Bears go at QB following Brian Hoyer’s injury and evaluate the defense’s gutsy performance on Thursday night against the Packers despite numerous injuries. Plus, a look at the big picture and who can help the Bears down the road.

Check out the latest edition of the Bears Talk Podcast here:

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

LOS ANGELES – Within minutes of the last out on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, ESPN’s @SportsCenter account sent out a photo of Moises Alou at the Wrigley Field wall to more than 30 million Twitter followers: “The last time the Cubs were up 3-2 in an NLCS was Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS vs. the Marlins. Most remember it as ‘the Bartman Game.’”

As Kerry Wood once said: “Irrelevant, dude.”
Look, the Cubs still need to find a way to beat either Clayton Kershaw or Rich Hill this weekend, with Kenley Jansen resting and waiting for the multiple-inning saves. The obligatory description for Kershaw is “the best pitcher on the planet.” Hill’s lefty curveball – and “the perceptual velocity” of his fastball – freezes hitters. Jansen has a mystical cutter reminiscent of the great Mariano Rivera. The top-heavy part of this Los Angeles playoff pitching staff has held the Cubs to zero runs in 16.1 innings.

But until proven otherwise, forget about this idea of a Cubs team weighed down by the history of a franchise that hasn’t played in the World Series since 1945.

Just look at Javier Baez getting in Anthony Rizzo’s airspace during Game 5, the human-highlight-film second baseman standing right next to the All-Star first baseman as he caught a Kike Hernandez pop-up for the second out of the third inning.

It didn’t matter that this was a 1-0 game and MVP-ballot players Justin Turner and Corey Seager were coming up. This is what the 2016 Cubs do. Rizzo caught the ball, quickly flipped it underhand and it bounced off Baez’s chest – in front of a sellout crowd of 54,449 and a national Fox Sports 1 audience.

“We always mess around,” Rizzo said at his locker inside a tight clubhouse jammed with media after an 8-4 win. “So I’m screaming: ‘Javy! Javy! I got it! I got it, Javy, I got it!’

“And usually he’ll yell at me: ‘Don’t miss it!’ Or I’ll yell at him: ‘Don’t miss it!’

“We do that a lot. If it’s a pop-up to him, I’ll go right behind him. It’s just little ways of slowing the game down and having fun, too.”

Rizzo is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency this year. As a super-utility guy, Baez got credit for 11 defensive runs saved in 383 innings at second base, or one less than co-leaders Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, who each did it in almost 1,300 innings.

“Sometimes when I call (Rizzo) off to get a fly ball, he starts talking to me,” Baez said. “I tell him: ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t move my head. You can touch me if you want. Just don’t move my head.’

“And I told him to be ready for it, because I was going to do the same thing. You just got to be focused on the fly ball. No matter what’s happening around you, you just got to catch it.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

This isn’t about Bartman. It’s about a group of young, confident players who are growing up together and absolutely expect to be in this position. It’s manager Joe Maddon designing “Embrace The Target” T-shirts and telling them to show up to the ballpark whenever they want and then blow off batting practice.

“For sure, we’re relaxed,” said Baez, who’s gone viral during these playoffs, the rest of the country witnessing his amazing instincts and flashy personality. “I’m relaxed when I play defense.”

The thing is, Rizzo and Baez could be playing next to each other for the next five years, the same way Kris Bryant and Addison Russell will be anchoring the left side of the infield.

This is how Rizzo introduced Russell to The Show when a natural shortstop tried to learn second base on the fly last year and track pop-ups in front of 40,000 people: “Hey, watch out for that skateboard behind you! Don’t trip!”

“Oh yeah, we yell at each other all the time,” Rizzo said. “It’s just one of those things where you got to stay loose.”