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Fire's depth being tested in busy stretch

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Fire's depth being tested in busy stretch

The Fires bench is being tested now, no doubt about that.

Faced with his clubs third game in seven nights, coach Frank Klopas left attacking midfielder Sebastian Grazzini home for Saturdays road match against the Columbus Crew, starting Rafael Robayo in his place. He also gave Frederico Puppo a start up top in place of Dominic Oduro.

None of those moves worked out very well, as the Crew scored twice in the first half and then held on for a 2-1 victory. That result pulled the Crew (5-4-3) into a tie with the Fire (5-4-3) for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, suggesting theyll be battling each other for a playoff berth for the remaining two-thirds of the season.

And that might not be the only battleground for the long-time rivals. If both win their third-round matches in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, theyll collide in that competition on June 5 at Toyota Park. Thats entirely likely, as both face minor league opponents on Tuesday. The Fire face the Michigan Bucks, a member of the Premier Development League, in Pontiac, Mich., while the Crew take on the Dayton Dutch Lions.

As for Saturdays match, the Fire disappointed the 600 loyal fans who piled into 10 buses for the trip to Columbus a journey paid for by the club. The Crew, on a roll with a 3-0-2 record in its last five games, were like the Fire playing its third match in seven nights.

Columbus scored twice in the first half. Klopas then replaced Puppo and Marco Pappa with Oduro and Orr Barouch at the outset of the second half. The new combination generated some chances, but a header by rookie defender Austin Berry in the 71st minute was the only goal the Fire could muster.

"The fight, the character of the guys in the second half was tremendous," said Fire captain Logan Pause. "The guys who came on, the subs, were fantastic. Weve got a group of capable guys, not just our first 11."

Chances are Klopas will have to go deeper into his bench on Tuesday, because the changes on Saturday werent entirely satisfactory.

"We looked a little bit tired at times," said Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich, speaking on Klopas behalf after the match. "The guys battled through that. Mentally they were very strong. We could have gotten 2-2."

Instead the loss was the first to an Eastern Conference opponent in more than a year (a 1-0 defeat at Philadelphia on May 21, 2011 was the last).

The Fire will be playing its fourth game in 10 nights in its first Open Cup test of 2012. The club has made the 99-year-old tournament a high priority since winning the title in the epic inaugural season of 1998. The Fire has won the Dewar Cup four times and lost in the finals twice, the last being a 2-0 defeat to the Seattle Sounders last season.

All amateur and professional teams registered with the U.S. Soccer Federation are eligible for the Open Cup, and those not in MLS have to battle through preliminary rounds before getting a crack at the big-leaguers. The Bucks got their chance with a dramatic 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

The Riverhounds are in the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division, and the match was played in Bridgeville, Pa. Still, the PDL club advanced thanks to Stew Givens goal in second-half stoppage time. Givens was the PDLs defender of the year in 2011.

Though the Fire have a sterling 28-9-3 record in Open Cup play, the club hasnt won the summer-long tourney since 2006 when Dave Sarachan was the head coach. The other titles came in 2000 and 2003. In 14 seasons the Fire has reached the Open Cup semifinals eight times.

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If Kyle Schwarber's back, the rest of the National League will have another reason to worry about the second-half Cubs

If Kyle Schwarber's back, the rest of the National League will have another reason to worry about the second-half Cubs

Kyle Schwarber’s proper introduction to the Cubs-Sox rivalry came in the summer of 2015 when a fan on the South Side threw a half-empty “tall boy” at him in left field. A little more than a year removed from college, Schwarber didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t finish all the beer first.  

David Ross chimed in, raising his voice loud enough so Schwarber and a group of reporters could hear him inside the visiting clubhouse: “You should have shotgunned it and then went over there and found him.

“I tell you what: I’d hate to try to wrap up Kyle Schwarber. I guarantee you that whoever threw that beer doesn’t want (any) part of Kyle Schwarber. I promise you that one.”

That was the rookie orientation before Schwarber: blasted five playoff home runs that October; suffered a devastating knee injury that almost wiped out his entire 2016 season; made a dramatic return to the World Series; and experienced newfound fame and fortune that would change his life forever.

Mess with Schwarber? That aura of invincibility is gone after his detour to Triple-A Iowa before the All-Star break. But the first-place Cubs will take Thursday night’s 6-3 win over the White Sox as another sign that he is almost back, yet another reason why the defending champs look ready to continue this second-half surge. 

“I told him that if he had a couple more push-ups in there, he would have had three homers tonight, but we’ll take a triple,” winning pitcher Jon Lester said afterward. “Schwarber’s been swinging the bat great since he’s been back.”

No doubt, the Cubs caught the sell-mode White Sox at the right time during the final days leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Even in going 3-for-4 and blasting his 16th and 17th home runs – which traveled 814 feet combined at Guaranteed Rate Field – Schwarber is still only hitting .191 with 90 strikeouts in 79 games this season.     

But the Cubs have always given Schwarber the benefit of the doubt and will point to his big personality and encouraging numbers since his Triple-A reset ended on July 6, getting on base almost 37 percent of the time and hitting safely in 10 of 13 games with five homers, three doubles and that triple.

“Retrospectively, we should not have expected that much,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “I’m guilty of that kind of a narrative or a dialogue also, because I was really eager to watch him play a full season of Major League Baseball.

“But the guy missed the whole season and did really well in a small window of time at the end of the year. So maybe my expectations exceeded what they should have been.

“I do believe he is that good. I do believe you’re going to come back and see him play at the level we anticipated. But he might have just needed more time. And we just didn’t recognize that.

“I might have been as guilty as anybody regarding the promotion of that. But I believe in him fully. I know it’s going to happen. There’s been some really good major-league hitters that have gone through the same thing.” 

At this point, the Cubs (54-47) would love to see what kind of wrecking ball Schwarber could be for a half-season. To his credit, Schwarber has been the same throughout all the ups and downs, someone who looks and sounds like a guy you would drink tall boys with.

“I just want to worry about putting the barrel on the ball,” Schwarber said. “I’m just trying to stay within myself, be short (with my swing) and it’s paying off.”