Cubs

Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

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Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

The good news is the Fire is awaiting its first playoff match since 2009. The bad news is the Fire goes into Wednesday nights meeting with the Houston Dynamo with absolutely no momentum.

Its still possible for the Fire to wins its second Major League Soccer title, the first coming in the clubs inaugural 1998 season, but the road couldnt be much more difficult. If the Fire gets by the Dynamo, the next task will be a two-game home-and-home series against Sporting Kansas City, clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

The first game of that conference semifinal series would be at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire gets by Houston and thats a big if.

Sadly, it didnt have to be this way. Had the Fire won its last regular season game, its playoff outlook would have been much brighter. The Fire would have been second in the East and have a week to prepare for its first opponent. But, the Fire didnt win, the last match ending in a 1-1 draw against D.C. United before a sellout crowd (20,017) in Bridgeview.

That result left United (17-10-7, 58 points) solo second behind Sporting Kansas City (18-7-9, 63). The Fire (17-11-6, 57) finished tied in points with the third-place New York Red Bulls (16-9-9, 57) but the Red Bulls owned the tiebreaker with 57 goals scored to 46 for the Fire.

Thus, D.C. United and New York will join SKC in getting a weeks rest before their first playoff match. Both will have some momentum going, too. United finished the season 5-0-2 and after its best player, Dwayne DeRosario, was lost with a knee injury. The Red Bulls needed to win their last game against Philadelphia to avoid the knockout match and got it with a resounding 3-0 CHECK victory a few hours before the Fire and United took the field in Bridgeview.

"Our conference was so tight, said Fire coach Frank Klopas. "This (match vs. United) wasnt the last game for us. Its behind us. Were still in a very good spot. We wanted a week to prepare. Thatd be better than a quick turn-around like this, but at least we dont have to travel. Our goal from the beginning was to be in the playoffs, and we are."

True, but having to play (and win) an extra game wont help the Fires chances of going deep into the postseason. Unlike most of this uplifting season the club finished it on a downer, going 1-3-1 in the last five matches. Two of the defeats were against Philadelphia and New England, conference rivals who had long since been eliminated from postseason contention.

And, as for settling for a draw with D.C. United, the Fire had only itself to blame. There were plenty of chances to win that one.

The Fire scored first, an electrifying 25-yard blast by Patrick Nyarko in the 16th minute. That was a promising start, since the Fire had never lost a match under Klopas when it scored first. That streak is still alive at 22 matches (17-0-5). The Fire also has a history of playing well in home finales, going 9-4-1 in its first 14. The Fire still hasnt lost a regular season home finale since 2005, but those stats are basically meaningless now.

A Fire breakdown in the 50th minute allowed Lionard Pajoy to head in the tying goal for United, but the Fire had plenty of opportunities to get it back. The club put nine shots on goal, many in the waning moments.

"We had four chances. Youre lucky if you get that many in a months worth of games," lamented forward Chris Rolfe, who was honored before the match as the Fires Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner for scoring the most goals.

Dominic Oduro put one shot high and another off the right post after entering the match in the 68th minute. Alvaro Fernandez, Sherjill MacDonald and reserves Alex and Guillermo Franco also had opportunities, too, but couldnt convert.

"Im proud of the effort of the group, said Klopas. "Theyve been consistent and put everything on the field. We took some risks, and you feel good about the chances youve created."

But theres a big difference between good chances and finishing them off. Klopas called a rare day-after-game Sunday training session to begin the Fires preparation for Houston. Though the Dynamo (14-9-11, 53 points) was a full four standings points behind the Fire, Houston was till comfortably in the playoffs after building a five-point advantage on sixth place Columbus.

The Dynamo may have the disadvantage of traveling to Wednesdays match, but should be well-rested. Coach Dominic Kinnear knew his club couldnt improve its position in its late Saturday night match against Colorado, so he gave his usual reserves plenty of playing time in a 2-0 loss. The key players who will take the field on Wednesday had only limited playing time against the Rapids.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Reviewing a positive road trip for Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish and Ian Happ

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Reviewing a positive road trip for Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish and Ian Happ

Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan, and Doug Glanville break down a solid 4-2 road trip for the Cubs. Plus, who would you rather have long-term: Bryce Harper or Manny Machado?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below. Apple Podcasts listeners can subscribe at the show page.

Cubs? White Sox? Manny Machado mum on Chicago possibilities as both sides of town dream of his World Series impact

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USA TODAY

Cubs? White Sox? Manny Machado mum on Chicago possibilities as both sides of town dream of his World Series impact

What’s Manny Machado’s favorite pizza place? What’s his favorite bar on Rush Street? Does he want to shoot the puck at the Blackhawks game? Maybe drive a Red Line train? Headline Lollapalooza?

Heck, is there anything that can get this guy to Chicago?

Sadly, Machado has no opinion on Chicago, at least no opinion he'd like to share. He talks as though he’s experienced nothing but the tarmac at O’Hare and the inside of the visitor’s clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“To be honest, nothing,” Machado said when one of the multitude of media members asked him what he thought about the city ahead of his Baltimore Orioles’ game against the White Sox on Monday night. “I go from my (hotel) room to the ballpark to play baseball. I try to keep it simple, my life is simple. I don’t really do too much other than come here and play.”

Sorry, Cubs and White Sox fans. No inside info to better the offer.

Both sides of town are entranced by Machado Mania. The North Side wants him to arrive via trade and help deliver another World Series championship in 2018. The South Side wants him to ink a monster free-agent deal and deliver a whole bunch of World Series championships as the new face of the rebuild.

But no matter whether you want the MVP candidate in blue pinstripes or 1983 throwbacks, he made no indication he’s thinking about his next team when he spoke Monday.

“That’s out of my hands. I can’t control that,” he said. “I’ve got to go out and win some games, do as much as I can for my ball club.

“I’m here to play baseball. Obviously you’ve got to answer these questions, but at the end of the day none of that matters. I’m here to win some games with my ball club, win some here with the Orioles, and play well at the same time.

“I’m not getting distracted by any of this, and all this talk, it’s rumors. They’re all rumors and talks. At the end of the day, I’ve got to go out there and perform and win games for this ball club.”

For the Cubs, rumors of a Machado pursuit would come at a seemingly steep cost. With almost nothing to deal away from the farm system, an Orioles team looking to jumpstart a rebuilding effort of their own would likely require Addison Russell as a centerpiece of any trade offer. Would Theo Epstein’s front office be willing to part with Russell, who they always speak so highly of, who is still just 24 years old and who remains under team control through the 2021 season? Just for a few months of Machado, who is by no means a guarantee to stick around on a free-agent deal?

The Cubs’ title chase this season would figure to be better served by getting two of their recent pitching acquisitions to turn in more consistently good performances. If Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish can right their respective ships, the Cubs might not need to worry about blowing up their core to add an MVP candidate to an already menacing lineup featuring multiple All Stars. But there’s no doubt about it: Any team that adds Machado to the mix is going to improve its chances of hoisting a trophy this October.

Unlike a pursuit of a player during free agency, it’s the Orioles the Cubs need to convince to seal a deal, not Machado, and even with Russell as the main piece, the Cubs’ package might not be the best one out there. But Machado, despite his comments, has likely heard a little bit of what it’s like to play on the North Side from the guy he calls his cousin, Albert Almora Jr.

“As kids growing up we played together,” Machado said. “When we were playing in his backyard growing up, we always dreamed about playing together some day in the big leagues and putting on the same big league uniform and be on the same field, win a World Series together, that’s every kid’s dream.”

Meanwhile, the White Sox are, as they’re doing in every facet of their existence at the moment, playing a long game when it comes to Machado or any big-name free-agent-to-be. Reports dating back to last winter say they’re expected to be one of the many teams vying to sign Machado to what’s sure to be a gargantuan contract when he joins Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and a host of other superstars in free agency this winter.

Machado’s production has made him the object of White Sox fans’ affections for some time, and the dream of seeing him join all the young talent in this rebuilding effort and leading the South Siders in their next pursuit of a title is still alive and well in their minds. The White Sox will have the financial ability to pay the high price for Machado, if they choose — a price, it should be noted, that come winter will be only measured in money and not players, as a midseason trade during this campaign would be. Obviously the biggest selling point is their bright future, where he could anchor a lineup that also features Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert. Pair that with a boatload of cash, and maybe it’s enough to edge out the rest of what’s expected to be a very competitive market.

The White Sox, too, have an apparent void at third base (or shortstop, should they do some maneuvering on the left side of the infield) moving forward after Jake Burger, last year’s first-round pick, twice tore the same Achilles tendon this year. While there’s still time needed to tell where exactly the White Sox will have major league holes to fill, penciling names into a 2020 lineup leaves most pencilers with a question mark at third base. Machado would fit nicely there, and the apparent need could provide more drive for the White Sox to get something done this winter. There will be other options, of course, should they miss out on Machado. Donaldson this winter and Nolan Arenado the following are two other alluring names. Be it Machado, it would be the kind of statement signing that signals that the rebuilding effort is ready to transition into the contention phase, much like the Cubs did with Jon Lester.

And like the Cubs, the White Sox have their own Machado friend to make a convincing pitch. Nicky Delmonico played alongside Machado (and Harper, for that matter) on a Team USA squad back in 2009.

“It was really cool. I got to play with Harper for two years and Machado (for one),” Delmonico said last week. “Just to be around that type of talent, it was a lot of fun.

“It was pretty special. We had a lot of guys who are doing well at the big league level. It was like a big family.

“You’re with each other every day. It’s like what I compare to the minor leagues. You’re playing every day in that short amount of time. So you got to know that person pretty well. And to play with those guys, it was a lot of fun.”

And Welington Castillo, too, got to know Machado when they were teammates last year in Baltimore.

“He’s special, honestly,” Castillo said. “I had the opportunity to play with him last year in the (World Baseball Classic) and then for a year with the Orioles. It’s nice to play with him in the same lineup and spend time with him. He’s an awesome player and an awesome person. I think that’s why everybody is talking about him. Everybody sees because he’s been showing them every year, what he can do.

“Who wouldn’t want to have a guy like him?”

If Machado has received any PR training through this process, he put it to good use Monday. Nothing he said indicated any preference to join either of this city’s teams either this season or next. He didn’t say the word “Cubs” once, and judging by his response to the lone question asked specifically about the White Sox, it doesn’t sound like the South Side rebuild is the talk of the Orioles’ clubhouse.

That, though, will likely do nothing to dampen enthusiasm on either side of town that Machado could soon call this city home, nor does it mean Machado wouldn't be jazzed about joining a championship contender this season or a franchise with a bright future next season.

But until a deal is made this summer or this winter — or both — it’s all just speculation. Until then, Machado’s going to try to beat one of Chicago’s teams four times this week, either as a preview of what could be or a display of opportunity lost.