Fire's loss sets up critical match against DC United

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Fire's loss sets up critical match against DC United

Saturday was a strange night for Chicago soccer.

Arguably the best-played match of the season at Toyota Park was staged in an ideal soccer atmosphere, but it didnt involve the Fire. The citys Major League Soccer club was in Boston, playing a bad game in a bad setting at a crucial point in the season.

Toyota Park welcomed the top two teams in the current FIFA Womens World Rankings, and it drew a sellout crowd announced at 19,522. The stadiums seating capacity is 20,000 and the Fire drew 20,563 against the Los Angeles Galaxy in its lone sellout of this season, but forget the seeming contradiction in numbers. The Olympic gold medalists from the U.S. played Germany to a 1-1 draw before a most-attentive packed house in Bridgeview.

The Fire, meanwhile, went into its last road match of the MLS regular season against the New England Revolution with the chance to take over first place in the Eastern Conference. Putting on a performance that captain Logan Pause admitted was "kind of blah," the Fire took a 1-0 loss that damaged its playoff positioning.

Not only that, but the atmosphere in New England reflected the problems still plaguing 17-year old MLS. One of its charter teams, the Revolution announced a crowd of 25,534 not bad numerically, but that left Gillette Stadium only one-third filled. The home of footballs New England Patriots is clearly not suited for soccer.

The Fire-New England match was played on artificial turf clearly marked for a National Football League game. The field was also too narrow for an MLS match. The Revs need a new home field, one like most every other team in the league.

Those long-range issues aside, the Fire (17-11-5) put itself in a precarious position for this Saturdays regular season home finale against D.C. United (17-10-6). United climbed ahead of the Fire and into second place in the Eastern Conference by beating the Columbus Crew 3-2 in another Saturday night matchup.

The loss in New England, coupled with Sporting Kansas Citys scoreless draw against New York, killed the Fires chances of finishing in first place in the Eastern Conference. Now the Fire could finish as high as second or as low as fifth, depending on the last round of regular season matches.

Finishing second or third would mean a spot in the two-game Eastern semifinal series, to be played Nov. 3 or 4 and Nov. 7 or 8. Finishing fourth or fifth would mean a one-game knockout match on Wednesday or Thursday on the home field of the No. 4 seed to determine the last team in the conference semifinals.

The five Eastern playoff teams were determined over the weekend, but not the order of finish. SKC (17-7-9) needs a draw in its last match at home against the Philadelphia Union to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs. D.C. United (17-10-6) could keep its hopes alive for the top spot with a road win in Bridgeview. New York (15-9-9) sits in the fourth spot with only a Saturday road match at Philadelphia remaining. Fifth-place Houston (14-8-11) concludes at Colorado on Saturday night.

Though theres plenty of uncertainty regarding the postseason, theres no doubt that the Fire must play better the rest of the way than it did under the less-than-ideal circumstances in New England.

"We really just needed to raise our energy level. Thats really what it was about. We just came out flat in the first half," said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. That resulted in the Fire giving up the first goal for the 20th time in 33 matches a revealing statistic that must be improved for the big matches ahead.

The Fire has been a bad team on artificial turf, going 2-9-2 on such surfaces over the last three years, so it wasnt surprising the club struggled in its latest adventure off grass. Coach Frank Klopas didnt want to risk injury to Arne Friedrich, the veteran German defender, on the New England field with a playoff berth already assured. Friedrich was a healthy scratch.

"We dont play on turf much, and we come here and the field is smaller, the bounce is different, we dont practice on turf," said Klopas. "Its different.Its not like we came here underestimating anyone.We just werent that share in the final third when we had opportunities to be so."

Klopas brought Dan Gargan in at right back and moved Jalil Anibaba into the middle against the Revs. Friedrichs absence had little to do with the disappointing outcome, as the defenders limited New England to one shot on goal a 25-yarder by 17-year old Diego Fagundez in the 17th minute. Fagundez was one of several youngsters used by coach Jay Heaps as New England (8-17-8) wound down its disappointing season.

Fagundez goal snapped a 196-minute scoreless streak for New England. The Revs became the first Eastern team to win a season series from the Fire, which has won season series against SKC, New York, Houston, Columbus, Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto. The Fire came out a 4-2 loser in its lone meeting with D.C. United, an Aug. 22 battle on Uniteds field.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bulls welcome Cavaliers to town

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bulls welcome Cavaliers to town

In the latest installment of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, the panel previews the Bulls' matchup against the Cavaliers. 

Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by Mark Carman (WGN Radio), David Schuster (670 The Score) and Kendall Gill to break down the keys to a Bulls win. Later, Vincent Goodwill (CSNChicago.com) joins Luke to discuss the team's progress. 

Finally, LeBron James pays off his World Series bet and the entire media world is there to see it. 

Check out the SportsTalk Live Podcast below: 

White Sox agree to one-year deals with Brett Lawrie, Avisail Garcia

White Sox agree to one-year deals with Brett Lawrie, Avisail Garcia

Brett Lawrie and Avisail Garcia will both return to the White Sox in 2017.

The team announced it reached deals with both players shortly before Friday’s 7 p.m. CST nontender deadline. Lawrie will earn $3.5 million next season and Garcia received a one-year deal for $3 million.

The club didn’t tender a contract to right-handed pitcher Blake Smith, which leaves its 40-man roster at 38.

Acquired last December for a pair of minor leaguers, Lawrie hit .248/.310/.413 with 12 home runs, 22 doubles and 36 RBIs in 94 games before he suffered a season-ending injury.

Lawrie produced 0.9 f-WAR when he suffered what then-manager Robin Ventura described a “tricky” injury on July 21. Despite numerous tests and a lengthy rehab, Lawrie never returned to the field and was frustrated by the experience. Last month, Lawrie tweeted that he believes the cause of his injury was wearing orthotics for the first time in his career.

He was projected to earn $5.1 million, according to MLBTraderumors.com and earned $4.125 million in 2016.

Garcia hit .245/.307/.385 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs in 453 plate appearances over 120 games. The projected salary for Garcia, arb-eligible for the first time, was $3.4 million.

The team also offered contracts to Miguel Gonzalez and Todd Frazier, who are eligible for free agency in 2018, first baseman Jose Abreu and relievers Dan Jennings, Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka, among others.

The White Sox have until mid-January to reach an agreement with their arbitration-eligible players. If they haven’t, both sides submit figures for arbitration cases, which are then heard throughout February.