Fire's late-season struggles persist in playoff loss to Houston

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Fire's late-season struggles persist in playoff loss to Houston

The Fire were a good home team until Wednesday night.

And, the Houston Dynamo was a bad road team until Wednesday night.

That trending went out the window in the first match of the Major League Soccer playoffs. The Fire, 11-3-3 in its regular season home games at Toyota Park, tumbled 2-1 to a Houston club that was 3-9-5 on the road (and an even more revealing 1-9-5 in the last 15).

The Fire have been in MLS postseason play 12 times in its 15 seasons, and Wednesdays knockout round loss was the clubs first home regulation defeat in a playoff match. The Fire are 16-2-3 in home playoff matches over 15 seasons and 4-1-1 at Toyota Park, but that run of form didnt continue against Houston.

So, the Dynamo -- a 1-0 loser to the Los Angeles Galaxy in last years MLS Cup final -- moved on to a two-game, home-and-home Eastern Conference semifinal series against top-seeded Sporting Kansas City that begins in Houston on Sunday while the Fire try to figure out what happened in a final few training sessions that will be conducted without games to be played.

"Everyone has to keep their heads up," said veteran defender Arne Friedrich. "We have played throughout the season with very young players, and they did very good."

But clearly not good enough. At a point in the season where the Fire should have been playing at its best, it played its worst. The Fire, 17-11-6 in a largely uplifting regular season, was 1-3-1 to conclude the MLS campaign before coming up empty against the Dynamo a club that wass a 3-1 loser at Toyota Park on Sept. 2 and settled for two draws with the Fire before that.

The Fire fell behind in the 13th minute when Will Bruin headed down Brad Davis corner kick, then found himself with an open shot after Fire defender Jalil Anibaba stumbled. With ex-Fire forward Calen Carr providing a distraction in front of the net goalkeeper Sean Johnson was slow in reacting.

"After that first goal we had a feeling this was our game," said Bruin, who had 12 goals in the regular season and scored both for his team on Wednesday. "We felt we were playing well under pressure. We got that goal as a reward for our good play."

The Fire were unable to answer the rest of the first half so Fire coach Frank Klopas pulled his captain, defensive-minded Logan Pause, for Brazilian attacking midfielder Alex at the start of the second half. Houston foiled that move immediately, when Carr slipped a pass between Fire defenders Friedrich and Austin Berry to set up Bruin for his second goal just 18 seconds after play resumed.

"We started the second half in the worst way," said Klopas. "It just wasnt meant to be this year."

The Fire didnt do much offensively until Alex caromed a 10-yard shot into the net off the right post in the 83rd minute. That created some suspense for the time that remained and brought the crowd of 10,923 to life, but the Fire couldnt get the equalizer even with ex-Dynamo Dominic Oduro creating some opportunities off the bench.

"If you give them chances like we did its going to be hard to beat them," said forward Chris Rolfe, the Fires MVP and golden boot winner this season.

"I have a lot of respect for the Chicago Fire organization," said Carr, who was traded to Houston for Oduro one game into the 2011 season in a deal that helped both clubs. "Theyve had a good season and should be proud of what theyve accomplished. But, at the same time, the stakes are high and weve got our goals here with the Houston Dynamo."

Carr was riddled with injuries in five seasons with the Fire before the trade and arrived in Houston battling the effects of a concussion. He revived his career and was in the first 11 for the Dynamo on Wednesday while wearing a helmet.

"Ive had a tough string of luck, for sure," said Carr, "but Im feeling good and stayed healthy the end of last season and this season. Ive put together a good run of form and want to help this team any way I can. Coming to Houston was great for me. I enjoyed my time in Chicago. I look back on it fondly, but the best time of my career is now. I feel lucky to be a part of this group."

John Goossens' return could be key for the Fire

John Goossens' return could be key for the Fire

For much of this season the Chicago Fire have struggled not just to score goals, but to create chances.

The Fire moved out of last place in Major League Soccer in goals scored after putting in three in a loss at Philadelphia last week, but are still last place in total shots (157) and shots on target (43). For context, the team just above the Fire in shots on target is San Jose with 60 and Vancouver leads the league with 109.

In Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup victory against Columbus there was a welcome face starting in the midfield for the first time since April 16: John Goossens. Goossens made his return from a sprained LCL in Philadelphia, but came off the bench in that match.

Goossens' impact against the Crew was immediately seen in his assist to David Accam on the opening goal in the seventh minute. Goossens got control of the ball in his own half and was able to dribble forward into Columbus' third. When the defense finally closed him down, Goossens was able to weave through a pair of defenders and hit Accam with a pass. Accam did the rest of the work with an impressive finish, but it's reasonable to think no other player on the Fire is able to get the ball to Accam in that spot, at least not in the same way.

“I think he’s calm and comfortable on the ball,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said of Goossens. “He has actually very good offensive perception of the game.

“He was relief for us when we were building out of the back. In the moments when we had to win and have a progression in our build up he showed up and that’s very important and positive for the team.”

Goossens had a number of opportunities with the ball and the Fire’s pair of speedy forwards, Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, running in front of him.

“It was really easy for me once I get the ball behind their midfield, between their midfield and defensive line,” Goossens said. “I had all the time to turn and to look for those two fast guys. They scored two amazing goals.”

Goossens subbed out of the game after 60 minutes, which was expected given it was his first start in more than two months.

The problem so far is that Goossens hasn't been able to stay healthy this season. He hasn't played a full 90 minutes yet this season and has only made seven appearances this season.

That said, when Goossens has played he has made a difference. The assist to Accam was his third of the season. In addition, the team has performed its best with Goossens on the field. Even before Tuesday's 2-1 win, Goossens had the best plus-minus, to borrow a hockey stat, on the Fire.

When Goossens has been on the field in MLS play, the Fire have a plus-two goal differential. Of course there are a lot of factors that go into that with 11 players on the field, but plus-two is a notable difference from the Fire's overall goal differential of minus-six. The only other player on the team with a positive plus-minus is Arturo Alvarez at plus-one.

“We missed him,” Accam said. “He is one of our creative players and I’m really happy we have him back on the pitch. If we get Arturo back then we are perfect for us strikers because we need the midfielders to feed us good balls and today Goossens did that. Hopefully that will continue.”

Cubs win wild 15-inning thriller over Reds

Cubs win wild 15-inning thriller over Reds

CINCINNATI (AP) — Kris Bryant singled home the tiebreaking run in the 15th inning and the Chicago Cubs used three pitchers in left field while beating the Cincinnati Reds 7-2 on Tuesday night in the longest game of the season for both teams.

With the Cubs out of position players, relievers Travis Wood and Spencer Patton (1-0) alternated between left field and the mound in the 14th inning, which ended with Patton getting the final out. Wood then finished it off with reliever Pedro Stropin left.

Bryant's only hit on Tuesday - a single off J.J. Hoover (1-2) - snapped the tie. Javier Baez added a grand slam in the 15th, the sixth career allowed by Hoover, which is a Reds record.

The National League's top team went 1-6 last week but has pulled out of the downturn by winning the first two games of a series against the Reds. The Cubs hit five homers - three by Bryant - while taking the opener 11-8.

Eugenio Suarez singled home the tying run with two outs in the ninth off Hector Rondon, his third blown save in 16 chances, setting the game on its meandering course.

Ben Zobrist led off the game with a homer off left-hander John Lamb. Left-hander Jon Lester singled home another run and allowed only one hit until the eighth inning, when Billy Hamilton homered. The Cubs' closer couldn't hold on.

A lot of the focus Tuesday was on Bryant, who was coming off a historic performance.

Bryant became the first major league player to hit three homers and two doubles in a game on Monday night. He set a Cubs record with 16 total bases and became the youngest Cubs player to hit three homers in a game since Ernie Banks did it in 1955, also at the age of 24.

Bryant broke his three-homer bat the first time up on Tuesday, cracking it on a groundout. The bat boy retrieved it and took it to the Major League Baseball authenticator, who labeled the bat and safely stored it. Bryant flied out, walked twice, fouled out with two runners aboard for the final out in the 10th, and struck out in the 13th before driving in the go-ahead run.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Reds: RHP Homer Bailey felt fine a day after throwing an inning in his first rehab start. Bailey, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery 13 months ago, is expected to pitch again on Saturday ... 2B Brandon Phillips fouled a ball off the inside of his left foot in the first inning. He fouled another pitch off the same foot in his next at-bat and got hit in the left side by a pitch from Rondon in the ninth.

UP NEXT

Cubs: Kyle Hendricks (5-6, 2.76) is 1-5 with a 3.79 ERA in seven road starts this season. He's 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA in seven home games.

Reds: Cody Reed (0-1, 6.75) makes his third career start. In his first appearance at Great American Ball Park last Friday, he gave up five runs in five innings of a 13-4 loss to the Padres.

White Sox offense struggles in front of Quintana in shutout loss to Twins

White Sox offense struggles in front of Quintana in shutout loss to Twins

The White Sox haven’t had many big hits in their last dozen games.

The White Sox never seem to deliver any timely knocks in Jose Quintana starts.

Those two forces collided in a 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night in front of 22,072 at U.S. Cellular Field.

Quintana allowed two Brian Dozier home runs, including a decisive three-run shot in the sixth inning, and dropped a seventh straight decision. His offense finished 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position as Kyle Gibson twirled seven scoreless innings.

Outfielder Melky Cabrera also left the game early with a sore left wrist.

“We didn’t do nothing as hitters,” third baseman Todd Frazier said. “We have to find a way. We had an off day. Everybody was nice and relaxed coming back. We’re professionals here as hitters. We have to find ways to get guys in.”

The White Sox didn’t have many shots against Gibson.

They butchered those that they did.

No opportunity was bigger than the third inning, which began with singles by J.B. Shuck and Tim Anderson in front of the team’s 2-3-4 hitters. But Gibson delivered and the White Sox failed yet again.

Down 1-0, Adam Eaton couldn’t move the runners over as he flew out to center. Jose Abreu followed suit and flew out to center before Cabrera — who left in the top of the seventh and is listed as day-to-day — popped out to second.

One inning earlier, Brett Lawrie was stranded in scoring position when Gibson got Avisail Garcia to chase a two-strike pitch off the plate and in the dirt. It was more of the same in the fifth when Eaton flew out to center with a man on second. And again in the seventh when Shuck flew out and Anderson grounded into a fielder’s choice with two aboard.

“It started out well,” manager Robin Ventura said. “You get them on there. Any time we seemed to get something going against Gibson, he just really started going soft and using your aggressiveness against you. I think that's part of what played into it. He had a very good changeup, he used his curve when he had to. He went a little bit backwards. Any time we got into an aggressive count, he just took a little off. We couldn't get anything going against him.”

The team’s effort was the continuance of a nasty trend.

The White Sox are 12-for-98 (.122) with runners in scoring position in their last 12 games. The lengthy slump dropped them from hitting a formidable .260 with RISP, which ranked in the top half of the league, to below .240, which ranks in the bottom third.

That the performance arrived with Quintana on the mound should come as no surprise.

Whereas the White Sox scored 25 runs in Quintana’s first seven starts, they’ve relapsed into their old non-scoring selves whenever he takes the hill. Over his last nine starts, Quintana has had nine runs of support.

The left-hander said the lack of support isn’t something he focuses on because it’s out of his hands.

“I don’t have control on the runs,” Quintana said. “I say the same every time. But I don’t have control, man. I try to keep going. I try to be better next time and keep going. Next time be better out there, better outing and better everything.

“I never think about that. I just try to pay attention and do my job, focusing on throwing the ball well and that’s it.”

Quintana made two mistakes in seven otherwise solid innings.

Dozier’s solo homer to leadoff the second inning gave the Twins, who improved to 25-51, a one-run lead.

Eduardo Nunez then led off the sixth inning with a single and stole second base. He advanced to third on a passed ball. Quintana then walked Joe Mauer and Dozier made him pay when he got enough of a 2-1 curveball low and in to drive it out for a three-run homer and a 4-0 lead.

Quintana — who is 5-8 despite a 3.18 ERA — allowed six hits, walked one and struck out eight.

“I’m sure inside he’s frustrated,” Frazier said. “I would be too. He’s a competitor, gives it his all. One bad pitch.”