Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

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Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

The good news is the Fire is awaiting its first playoff match since 2009. The bad news is the Fire goes into Wednesday nights meeting with the Houston Dynamo with absolutely no momentum.

Its still possible for the Fire to wins its second Major League Soccer title, the first coming in the clubs inaugural 1998 season, but the road couldnt be much more difficult. If the Fire gets by the Dynamo, the next task will be a two-game home-and-home series against Sporting Kansas City, clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

The first game of that conference semifinal series would be at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire gets by Houston and thats a big if.

Sadly, it didnt have to be this way. Had the Fire won its last regular season game, its playoff outlook would have been much brighter. The Fire would have been second in the East and have a week to prepare for its first opponent. But, the Fire didnt win, the last match ending in a 1-1 draw against D.C. United before a sellout crowd (20,017) in Bridgeview.

That result left United (17-10-7, 58 points) solo second behind Sporting Kansas City (18-7-9, 63). The Fire (17-11-6, 57) finished tied in points with the third-place New York Red Bulls (16-9-9, 57) but the Red Bulls owned the tiebreaker with 57 goals scored to 46 for the Fire.

Thus, D.C. United and New York will join SKC in getting a weeks rest before their first playoff match. Both will have some momentum going, too. United finished the season 5-0-2 and after its best player, Dwayne DeRosario, was lost with a knee injury. The Red Bulls needed to win their last game against Philadelphia to avoid the knockout match and got it with a resounding 3-0 CHECK victory a few hours before the Fire and United took the field in Bridgeview.

"Our conference was so tight, said Fire coach Frank Klopas. "This (match vs. United) wasnt the last game for us. Its behind us. Were still in a very good spot. We wanted a week to prepare. Thatd be better than a quick turn-around like this, but at least we dont have to travel. Our goal from the beginning was to be in the playoffs, and we are."

True, but having to play (and win) an extra game wont help the Fires chances of going deep into the postseason. Unlike most of this uplifting season the club finished it on a downer, going 1-3-1 in the last five matches. Two of the defeats were against Philadelphia and New England, conference rivals who had long since been eliminated from postseason contention.

And, as for settling for a draw with D.C. United, the Fire had only itself to blame. There were plenty of chances to win that one.

The Fire scored first, an electrifying 25-yard blast by Patrick Nyarko in the 16th minute. That was a promising start, since the Fire had never lost a match under Klopas when it scored first. That streak is still alive at 22 matches (17-0-5). The Fire also has a history of playing well in home finales, going 9-4-1 in its first 14. The Fire still hasnt lost a regular season home finale since 2005, but those stats are basically meaningless now.

A Fire breakdown in the 50th minute allowed Lionard Pajoy to head in the tying goal for United, but the Fire had plenty of opportunities to get it back. The club put nine shots on goal, many in the waning moments.

"We had four chances. Youre lucky if you get that many in a months worth of games," lamented forward Chris Rolfe, who was honored before the match as the Fires Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner for scoring the most goals.

Dominic Oduro put one shot high and another off the right post after entering the match in the 68th minute. Alvaro Fernandez, Sherjill MacDonald and reserves Alex and Guillermo Franco also had opportunities, too, but couldnt convert.

"Im proud of the effort of the group, said Klopas. "Theyve been consistent and put everything on the field. We took some risks, and you feel good about the chances youve created."

But theres a big difference between good chances and finishing them off. Klopas called a rare day-after-game Sunday training session to begin the Fires preparation for Houston. Though the Dynamo (14-9-11, 53 points) was a full four standings points behind the Fire, Houston was till comfortably in the playoffs after building a five-point advantage on sixth place Columbus.

The Dynamo may have the disadvantage of traveling to Wednesdays match, but should be well-rested. Coach Dominic Kinnear knew his club couldnt improve its position in its late Saturday night match against Colorado, so he gave his usual reserves plenty of playing time in a 2-0 loss. The key players who will take the field on Wednesday had only limited playing time against the Rapids.

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.