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.

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

The Bulls have entered their rebuilding phase, dealing Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, which became Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen. Time will tell what Markkanen becomes as a stretch forward/center but he certainly was worthy of the selection. LaVine and Dunn had been with the Timberwolves since they were drafted, and give the Bulls two versatile options in a backcourt that will look far different than it did a year ago.

Here’s what the Bulls are getting in the two former Timberwolves guards:

LaVine, a two-time NBA Dunk Contest champion, was having a career year before he suffered a torn ACL on Feb. 3. Playing a bigger role in his second season under Thibodeau, LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 46 percent shooting and shot a respectable 39 percent from deep on 6.6 attempts per game, 16th most in the NBA.

LaVine is known for him thunderous dunks, but that athleticism allowed him to shoot nearly 64 percent at the rim last year, per basketball-reference. He’s a scorer first and foremost, topping 25 or more point 10 different times in those 47 games. He went for 40 points in a late December loss to the Kings. He also had five or more assists on eight different occasions, so he’s able to distribute the ball as well. He’s a true combo guard who should finally give Fred Hoiberg some backcourt flexibility.

The Bulls got a firsthand look at LaVine’s skill set in December when he went for 24 points, six rebounds and six assists in a win over the Bulls at the United Center. He shot 10-for-18 and made a few key shots over Dwyane Wade late to seal the game. It was part of a stellar 16-game stretch between November 23 and December 23 when LaVine averaged 23.6 points and 3.5 assists.

He flirted with 50/40/90, shooting 49 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 88 percent from the line. He did all this, of course, playing behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. While that gave LaVine more one-on-one situations as defenses dealt with his two budding star teammates, shots were hard to come by until LaVine asserted himself and worked him into a featured role in the offense.

LaVine had ACL surgery on February 14 and spoke about his recovery in late May, saying “everything is going well.” LaVine said at that time he was only allowed to run on an anti-gravity treadmill, and there’s still no timetable for his return to the court. A source told Insider Vincent Goodwill LaVine is “training softly.”

Dunn has plenty of work to do to show he can compete at the next level. Though he only played one season, his rookie campaign under Thibodeau was one to forget. The No. 5 pick in the draft averaged 3.8 points and 2.4 assists in 17.1 minutes per game. He played in 78 games behind Ricky Rubio, although he did lose some playing time to Tyus Jones late in the season.

Dunn’s shooting is his biggest weakness. In terms of true shooting percentage, which takes into account 3-point shots and free throws, Dunn was second-to-last in the NBA last year with a 43.2 percent mark. He shot just 38 percent from the floor, 29 percent from beyond the arc and 61 percent at the free-throw line.

For his season-long struggles he did look good in the second half of the year. After the All-Star break he improved his percentages to 40.4/33.3/77.8 and had a handful of impressive games. He had 11 points and seven assists against the Lakers and followed it the next night with a career-best 17 points against the Blazers. In the season finale he handed out 16 assists to go with 10 points, the first double-double of his career.

Where it’s clear he excels is taking care of the ball. His 1.1 turnovers were seventh fewest among point guard who averaged at least Dunn’s 17 minutes per game. He’s ready to facilitate, but he’ll need to score at a higher and more efficient clip to earn playing time.

Where both fit into the Bulls is a question for now. The Bulls have a decision to make with Rajon Rondo and whether to pick up his team option for next season. The Bulls traded for both Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne in the last calendar year, and Isaiah Canaan is under contract for another year. On the wing, LaVine will replace Butler and get as much run as he can handle. With only Denzel Valentine and Anthony Morrow available at shooting guard, LaVine is in line for a big role from Day 1. He’s also in the last year of his rookie contract so the Bulls will be looking to extend him sooner than later.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”