Fire's late-season struggles persist in playoff loss to Houston

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Fire's late-season struggles persist in playoff loss to Houston

The Fire were a good home team until Wednesday night.

And, the Houston Dynamo was a bad road team until Wednesday night.

That trending went out the window in the first match of the Major League Soccer playoffs. The Fire, 11-3-3 in its regular season home games at Toyota Park, tumbled 2-1 to a Houston club that was 3-9-5 on the road (and an even more revealing 1-9-5 in the last 15).

The Fire have been in MLS postseason play 12 times in its 15 seasons, and Wednesdays knockout round loss was the clubs first home regulation defeat in a playoff match. The Fire are 16-2-3 in home playoff matches over 15 seasons and 4-1-1 at Toyota Park, but that run of form didnt continue against Houston.

So, the Dynamo -- a 1-0 loser to the Los Angeles Galaxy in last years MLS Cup final -- moved on to a two-game, home-and-home Eastern Conference semifinal series against top-seeded Sporting Kansas City that begins in Houston on Sunday while the Fire try to figure out what happened in a final few training sessions that will be conducted without games to be played.

"Everyone has to keep their heads up," said veteran defender Arne Friedrich. "We have played throughout the season with very young players, and they did very good."

But clearly not good enough. At a point in the season where the Fire should have been playing at its best, it played its worst. The Fire, 17-11-6 in a largely uplifting regular season, was 1-3-1 to conclude the MLS campaign before coming up empty against the Dynamo a club that wass a 3-1 loser at Toyota Park on Sept. 2 and settled for two draws with the Fire before that.

The Fire fell behind in the 13th minute when Will Bruin headed down Brad Davis corner kick, then found himself with an open shot after Fire defender Jalil Anibaba stumbled. With ex-Fire forward Calen Carr providing a distraction in front of the net goalkeeper Sean Johnson was slow in reacting.

"After that first goal we had a feeling this was our game," said Bruin, who had 12 goals in the regular season and scored both for his team on Wednesday. "We felt we were playing well under pressure. We got that goal as a reward for our good play."

The Fire were unable to answer the rest of the first half so Fire coach Frank Klopas pulled his captain, defensive-minded Logan Pause, for Brazilian attacking midfielder Alex at the start of the second half. Houston foiled that move immediately, when Carr slipped a pass between Fire defenders Friedrich and Austin Berry to set up Bruin for his second goal just 18 seconds after play resumed.

"We started the second half in the worst way," said Klopas. "It just wasnt meant to be this year."

The Fire didnt do much offensively until Alex caromed a 10-yard shot into the net off the right post in the 83rd minute. That created some suspense for the time that remained and brought the crowd of 10,923 to life, but the Fire couldnt get the equalizer even with ex-Dynamo Dominic Oduro creating some opportunities off the bench.

"If you give them chances like we did its going to be hard to beat them," said forward Chris Rolfe, the Fires MVP and golden boot winner this season.

"I have a lot of respect for the Chicago Fire organization," said Carr, who was traded to Houston for Oduro one game into the 2011 season in a deal that helped both clubs. "Theyve had a good season and should be proud of what theyve accomplished. But, at the same time, the stakes are high and weve got our goals here with the Houston Dynamo."

Carr was riddled with injuries in five seasons with the Fire before the trade and arrived in Houston battling the effects of a concussion. He revived his career and was in the first 11 for the Dynamo on Wednesday while wearing a helmet.

"Ive had a tough string of luck, for sure," said Carr, "but Im feeling good and stayed healthy the end of last season and this season. Ive put together a good run of form and want to help this team any way I can. Coming to Houston was great for me. I enjoyed my time in Chicago. I look back on it fondly, but the best time of my career is now. I feel lucky to be a part of this group."

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks win, Jimmy Butler starts All-Star Game

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks win, Jimmy Butler starts All-Star Game

Here are some of Sunday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Jimmy Butler: 'Hopefully I’m not going to get traded'

Patrick Kane leads Blackhawks to win in Buffalo homecoming

What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez

Jose Abreu ready for 2017 after season full of 'different challenges'

Wojnarowski: Bulls-Celtics Jimmy Butler trade talks 'will loom over the entire week'

After surreal offseason, Ben Zobrist comes to Cubs camp in style as World Series MVP

White Sox rookie Charlie Tilson out at least 10 days with foot injury

Fire score five goals for fourth preseason win

Simeon beats rival Morgan Park for city championship

Former Northwestern football player Torri Stuckey now focuses on helping others

Jimmy Butler: 'Hopefully I’m not going to get traded'

Jimmy Butler: 'Hopefully I’m not going to get traded'

NEW ORLEANS — Every All-Star isn’t created equal, even by the slimmest of margins as the best 24 NBA players take their turn on the midseason stage.

So Jimmy Butler being announced among the first five as an All-Star starter had to represent some form of validation, now that he’s not a novice at the whole experience and he’s able to go through the motions of the hectic weekend without breaking much of a sweat.

But despite being a three-time All-Star and routinely mentioned as one of the game’s top 15 players or even top 10, he can’t shake the trade rumors that have seemed to follow him since this time last season.

As he finished up his All-Star experience at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, clarity was nowhere to be found—although heading to some tropical island for a couple days to actually unwind with clear water and warm air seemed to be the best therapy if he’s stressed by the uncertainty of the next few days.

“What’s Thursday? Oh, trade deadline,” Butler said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Am I anxious? Come on, man. I don’t worry about it. It don’t bother or scare me none.”

“Hopefully I’m not going to get traded but I don’t know. I don’t control that. Control what I can control, like going on vacation.”

Surely it has to be frustrating for a guy who’s elevated his game yet again, averaging 24.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.8 steals for the Bulls in 51 games. But he refuses to let it damper his All-Star spirits, playing with some of the best players in the world and a few guys he calls friends, like DeAndre Jordan and Kevin Durant.

“Not for me,” said Butler of the potential stress. “Not saying I’m untradeable but I don’t think about that. If I’m not in a Bulls uniform, I’ll give you a hug and say goodbye to you.”

Moments after Butler made his statement in the media room, the floodgates opened for the trade market as fellow Olympian DeMarcus Cousins was traded from the Sacramento Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans for what seemed to be mere fodder, pennies on the dollar for the most talented center in the NBA.

[SHOP: Get your Bulls gear right here]

While Cousins is far more of a handful than Butler could be, the trade almost signals a consistent truth that always bears repeating—that short of a select few, anybody can be traded.

Even a franchise altering talent like Cousins, who was traded to the city he was physically in for All-Star weekend, and included in the package of players was a guy who hit him in the groin last week (Buddy Hield), resulting in a Cousins outburst and ejection.

Butler has made his name with the Bulls, although not necessarily on the All-Star stage, a player who values defense and doesn’t have as much flash as some of the game’s shinier players.

With a six-point outing in 20 minutes, Butler was an on-court afterthought despite being a starter for the first time.

“Six? Should’ve gone for eight,” he sarcastically deadpanned.

In a relatively jovial mood through the weekend, Butler joked about the talk surrounding him and tried to brush it off as mere chatter as opposed to the franchise not seeing enough in him to make a firm commitment for the long-term, as the Boston Celtics are always hovering.

League sources expect the Celtics to engage the Bulls in conversations for the next few days, but nobody has a great feel for what either side is truly looking for.

But as Butler insisted, he’s only controlling what he can control, which is making himself a fixture for All-Star games to come as opposed to some of the first-timers who don’t know if they’ll get back here again.

“I think I got two underneath my belt,” Butler said. “I know what they’re feeling the first time, It’s so surreal like maybe I do belong here. That’s how I was thinking. Now it’s how do I get here every year? I think that’s the fun part, that’s the challenge. A lot of those guys have done it 10-plus years, hopefully I’m one.”

The only question seems to be, which uniform will it be in because the crazy season has begun.