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.

What to make of Blackhawks blockbuster deals

What to make of Blackhawks blockbuster deals

Before the clock struck noon on a day Chicago was hosting its first ever NHL Draft, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman sent shockwaves throughout the city and hockey world by completing a pair of blockbuster trades within an hour of each other.

The first was dealing three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona, and the second involving Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad in a swap of talented wingers with Columbus.

This comes two days after the Blackhawks announced Marian Hossa will miss the 2017-18 campaign with a progressive skin disorder. That's three core players gone in the blink of an eye.

Who's ready for a new era in Chicago?

Rather than maximizing a championship window that was viewed as closing quickly, Bowman has elected to take a long-term approach and it might not be the worst idea.

There's no doubt the loss of Hjalmarsson, who remains one of the most underrated blue liners in the league, and Panarin, who finished in the top-10 in scoring among forwards in both of his first two NHL seasons, will sting.

But there's a good chance the Blackhawks wouldn't have been able to reward them with the pay raises they deserve after their contracts expire following the 2018-19 season, and that certainly played a huge role in the decision to head in a new direction.

In reacquiring Saad, the Blackhawks finally give Jonathan Toews that reliable left-winger they've desperately lacked since Saad was shipped out of town in 2015, providing balance throughout the top-six. Saad is also locked up for the next four years at a $6 million cap hit that will look better as time goes by.

For the last two years, the Blackhawks were known as a one-line scoring team thanks to the chemistry developed between Patrick Kane and Panarin.

The second-half emergence of Nick Schmaltz and familiarity Kane has developed with center Artem Anisimov has allowed Panarin to become expendable in their quest to solve their top-line woes. And that's not a bad consolation line, especially when you consider top prospect Alex DeBrincat could also be in the cards as early as this season.

On the back end, the Blackhawks receive a 24-year-old defenseman in Connor Murphy, who's also signed for the next four years at a $3.85 million cap hit, and carries a right-handed shot, something they've needed more of in the organization. While there will certainly be growing pains under Joel Quenneville, Murphy's ceiling is fairly high and gives the Blackhawks some speed coming out of their own zone.

In making both of these deals, the Blackhawks got younger in their attempt to keep up with a league that relies more on speed, addressing a few areas that Nashville exposed during their first-round sweep of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.

And while they may have sacrificed two key players in the short-term, the Blackhawks executed a plan that should keep the perceived championship window open longer than expected.

Jimmy Butler is switching jerseys to the number he wasn't allowed to wear in Chicago

Jimmy Butler is switching jerseys to the number he wasn't allowed to wear in Chicago

Jimmy Butler is paying homage to the GOAT.

The former Bulls star could never be No. 23 in Chicago because of some guy named Michael Jordan, but now Butler is free in Minnesota.

Butler posted an emotional goodbye to Bulls fans and the city on Instagram Friday afternoon and fans pointed out he also changed his IG bio to read "#23 in minnesota, forever #33 from marquette."

Butler wore No. 21 during his six years with the Bulls since the most iconic jersey number in sports is retired in Chicago.

Considering Butler is probably the Bulls' best player since MJ, it makes sense Butler would want to follow in Jordan's footsteps in terms of jersey number, too.

Butler wore No. 21 with the Bulls to honor his college teammate, Joe Fulce, who he played with at Tyler Junior College. When Fulce later committed to Marquette, he brought Butler with him in Buzz Williams' first year in Milwaukee.