Fire end home schedule Saturday with D.C. United

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Fire end home schedule Saturday with D.C. United

Home field advantage is one thing, and the Fire has enjoyed its best season ever playing at Toyota Park. The Fire is 11-3-2 there going into Saturdays last regular season match against D.C. United.
Like most matches in the last two months, this one is huge for the Fire and the expected return of Pavel Pardo might mean more than the good vibes provided by the clubs impressive record on its home turf.
The Fire hasnt been the same since Pardo injured a hamstring in a 2-1 road win against Toronto FC on Sept. 12. He sat out the next game, a 3-1 home win vs. the Montreal Impact three days later, and then suffered a left calf injury at the Fires next training session. The Fire is a mediocre 3-3-0 in the six games that the 36-year old Mexican midfielder missed.
Daniel Paladini was a decent replacement, especially offensively where he contributed two goals and two assists. Still, the Fire could have used the steadying influence that Pardo brought in the first 27 matches, 26 of which he started.
Pardo played for Mexico in the 1998 and 2006 World Cups, appeared in over 300 matches for one of his countrys premier clubs teams Club America, and was on Stuttgarts championship team in the German Bundesliga in 2007. Losing a player with that kind of resume couldnt help but hurt, and the Fire lost road matches to two teams that had long been eliminated from playoff contention the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution while Pardo was sidelined.So, the Fire (17-11-5, 56 points) has lost three of its last four matches and cant afford another letdown against D.C. United (17-10-6, 57 points), though both are already guaranteed spots in Major League Soccers postseason competition.
"Our goal was to be in the playoffs, so now its important where you finish (within the Eastern Conference)," said Fire coach Frank Klopas. "Its very important to have home-field advantage and not to play that extra game...We have to get the three points at home that will put us in second place."
Pardo returned to full training on Tuesday and went through the Wednesday and Thursday sessions with no setbacks. Klopas wont commit to starting him on Saturday but is hopeful Pardo will be available for selection."Its always good to be on the field with the whole team and training at 100 percent," said Pardo after one of this weeks workouts. "Im happy to be coming back, and hopefully I'll be fully ready to play on Saturday."If the Fire does win in Saturdays matinee match it will climb back into the second spot and wont have to play in the one-game knockout match on either Wednesday or Thursday between the teams that finish fourth and fifth in the East. United is second and the Fire third heading into the last weekend of the campaign.The history between these teams is interesting. D.C. United was the premier team when MLS started, winning titles in 1996 and 1997 and going to the MLS Cup final again in the third season of 1998. That coincided with the Fires first season, and the Fire pulled off a monumental upset en route to sweeping the MLS and U.S. Open Cups. The Fire hasnt been that successful since, and D.C. United hasnt aged gracefully either.United is in postseason play for the first time since 2007 and the Fire is there for the first time since 2009. The Fire hasnt defeated D.C. United at Toyota Park since 2006, its first season in Bridgeview. The Fire is winless in their meetings there since then (0-3-3).As was the case with the Fire, just getting back to postseason play was a big deal for United and their road back was an unlikely one. United got red hot after its best player, Dwayne DeRosario, was lost with a knee injury. United is 5-0-1 since the star forward-midfielder went down.D.C. is the only team to score four goals against the Fire this season, doing it in a 4-2 win at RFK Stadium in their only previous meeting on Aug. 22. DeRosario had a goal and an assist in that matchup. Originally thought to be out for the rest of the season, United coach Ben Olsen is holding out hope that DeRosario might be able to play if his club goes deep into the postseason.Regardless of that possibility, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth based on the results of this weekends matches. The New York Red Bulls (15-9-9, 54 points) could move up by beating Philadelphia and the fifth-place Houston Dynamo (14-8-11, 53 points) could wrangle a home game in the knockout match with a road win at Colorado and the right set of outcomes in the other matches.The wild card, knockout match will be played on Wednesday or Thursday. The playoff format switches to two-game home-and-home series for the conference semifinals (No. 3 or 4 and 7 or 8) and the conference finals (Nov. 17 or 18). The MLS Cup final will be played Dec. 1 on the home field of the team with the higher seed.As part of the regular season finale festivities the Fire will have pink touches to their attire in support of breast cancer awareness and will also announce its award-winners. Media members did the voting for Most Valuable Player and Best Defender. My picks were goalkeeper Sean Johnson for MVP and Arne Friedrich for Best Defender.Johnson was a clear-cut winner for MVP in my book, with Patrick Nyarko his closest competition. The choice of Friedrich was more difficult, as Austin Berry deserves a boost for what I consider a Rookie-of-the-Year season. My reasoning was that Friedrichs steadying influence was also a big reason for Berrys solid play.

Swanigan's, Diallo's decisions and how it affects Bulls' NBA Draft

Swanigan's, Diallo's decisions and how it affects Bulls' NBA Draft

The deadline for underclassmen to pull their names out of the NBA Draft passed on Wednesday at midnight.

There were a few surprises, and a handful of decisions had an effect on how the Bulls will go about next month's draft.

Staying in the draft

Caleb Swangian, PF, Purdue: The sophomore All-American surprised many by keeping his name in the draft. Swanigan actually tested the waters after his freshman season but returned to the Boilermakers in 2016. He averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 35 games, earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors and was a National Player of the Year candidate. It's no secret the 6-foot-9 Swangian can score  - he had 15 games of 20 or more points - and showed some ability to shoot from deep, making nearly 45 percent of his 85 3-point attempts. Quickness and conditioning will be the real test for the 245-pound Swanigan, who has already lost significant weight since high school. Questions about his defense (he had just 27 steals and 36 blocks in two seasons) also stand out. With Nikola Mirotic's future in Chicago unknown, the Bulls could be in the market for depth at power forward. He wouldn't be an option for the Bulls at No. 14, but if he slides out of the first round he could be an option at No. 38.

D.J. Wilson, PF, Michigan: After averaging just 6.1 minutes as a sophomore, Wilson burst onto the scene as a junior, averaging 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 30.4 minutes for the Wolverines. He did his best work during the postseason; during Michigan's Big Ten Championship run and Sweet 16 appearance, Wilson averaged 15.6 points on 54 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Standing 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Wilson leaves some to be desired on the defensive end but has the ability to play as a combo forward - he had a 3-inch growth spurt after high school. Like Swanigan, Wilson won't be an option for the Bulls at No. 14 but could be a second-round option. He'd give the Bulls a similar look to what Bobby Portis does with a little more versatility on the wing.

Going back to college

Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky: The NBA Draft's biggest mystery could have been a home-run selection for the Bulls in the first round. Alas, Diallo has decided to play a year under John Calipari at Kentucky and likely boost his draft stock. Having not played since December, where he played at a prep academy in Connecticut, so there wasn't much film of the 6-foot-5 leaper. Still, after Thon Maker went No. 10 to the Bucks last year there was thought that a team would take a gamble on a high-upside mystery.

Andrew Jones, PG, Texas: There was little surprise that Jones, a five-star recruit who put together a solid freshman season, returned. He's still a bit raw as a prospect despite having elite size (6-foot-4) and solid athleticism, and another year running the point with incoming five-star recruit Mo Bomba could really improve his draft stock. The Bulls clearly have a need at the point (less if Rajon Rondo returns) and if Jones had made the leap he likely would have been around at No. 38. Even still, Jones is a player to keep an eye on during next year's draft, assuming Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant don't make significant improvements.

Moritz Wagner, PF, Michigan: There's a need on every NBA team for a stretch forward with 3-point potential. But those teams will have to wait at least another year after Wagner decided to return to Michigan for his junior season. Like Wilson, who kept his name in the draft, Wagner had an excellent postseason run for the Wolverines. That stretch included a 17-point effort against Minnesota and a career-high 26-point outing in a win over Louisville. He weighed in at just 231 pounds and only averaged 4.2 rebounds per game, so adding some strength to his game will help his draft prospect for next year. He could have been an option for the Bulls at No. 38.

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

Jose Abreu has made quite a turnaround from being a guy who was admittedly lost to bashing the ball like Abreu of old.

From April 19th on, Abreu has hit at another level, reminiscent of the performances he put on throughout an eye-opening 2014 campaign in which he was the unanimous American League rookie of the year winner. Over that stretch, Abreu has slashed at an absurd .347/.404/.677 clip with nine doubles, one triple, 10 home runs and 22 RBIs in 136 plate appearances.

Earlier this week, Abreu said the run is the product of trusting his tireless preparation.

"I struggled in the first few weeks of the season but I kept working," Abreu said through an interpreter. "Now I'm at this point where I feel very good and confident with my offense and things are going well for me. That's part of what you work for and if you work hard, you know the results will be there at the end of the day."

Two numbers that have improved significantly during Abreu's five-week tear are his average exit velocity and strikeout rate.

Abreu entered Wednesday 39th in the the majors with an average exit velocity of 90.5 mph this season, according to Baseball Savant.

But Abreu wasn't hitting the ball nearly as hard early this season, which was littered with weak contact. Abreu stumbled out of the gate with a .157 average, one extra-base hit and only five RBIs in his first 54 plate appearances. Through the first two weeks, Abreu's average exit velocity was 89.0 mph on 31 batted-ball events, which was slightly down from last season's 89.6 mph average and significantly down from 2015, when he averaged 90.9 mph.

Since then, however, Abreu has seen a significant increase in hard contact. Over his last 92 batted-ball events, Abreu is averaging 92.6 mph, a total that would qualify for 15th in the majors this season. Included in that span is 35 balls hit 100 mph or more.

But Abreu's success isn't just related to how hard he has hit the ball. He's also made much better contact this season and is striking out less than ever. Abreu struck out 14 times in his first 54 plate appearances (25.9 percent). But since then, he has whiffed only 17 times in 136 plate appearances, good for a 12.5 percent strikeout rate.

His season K-rate of 16.3 percent, according to Fangraphs.com, is down from a career mark of 19.6 percent.

"You have started to see him heat up a little," manager Rick Renteria said earlier this week. "He's given us solid at-bats. He's in a good place right now."

Actually, it's a great place and one Abreu hasn't done with consistency since 2015. He once again looks like the hitting machine he was for most of his first two seasons and the final two months of 2016.

Abreu is on pace to hit 36 home runs this season, which would match his 2014 total. His current wRC+ of 138 is his highest since he finished 2014 at 167.

Last season, Abreu didn't hit his 10th home run until June 18. He hit his 11th homer on June 23 and then didn't hit another until August 4. That stretch raised myriad questions both inside the organization and externally about whether or not Abreu would return to prominence as a hitter. Perhaps inspired by the August arrival of his son, Dariel, Abreu finished 2016 with a flurry, hitting .340/.402/.572 with 14 home runs in his final 241 plate appearances.

General manager Rick Hahn said last September that the stretch was important for White Sox evaluators to see.

"It certainly makes you more confident as you see him over the last six weeks, projecting out that he's going to be that same player that he was for the first two years of his career," Hahn said. "Earlier, when he was scuffling, you looked at some of the things he was doing from his approach or some of the mechanical issues he might have been having and you felt confident he was going to be able to get back. But in all candor, you like seeing the performance match what you're projecting and we've certainly seen that over the last six weeks."

The White Sox offense has benefitted from Abreu's leap back into prominence. The team has averaged 4.53 runs per game this season and is 9th in the American League with 204 runs scored and 17th overall in the majors. But the increase in offense still hasn't helped the White Sox improve in the standings. While Abreu is glad to be on the roll he is, he'd prefer if his team is along for the ride.

"We're are passing through a tough moment, a rough stretch," Abreu said. "For me as I've always said the team is first. I want to thank God for how I've performed through this rough stretch. But it's not something makes me feel happy because we didn't win as many games as we wanted to win. It's tough."