Fire hit home stretch


Fire hit home stretch

By JJ Stankevitz

On May 30, the Fire canned coach Carlos de los Cobos after stumbling to a 1-4-6 record through the first three months of the regular season. It was the latest change in a season full of transition for the Men in Red, and it left the squad with an uncertain future.

Four and a half months later, the Fire find themselves in a position at least one player never could've imagined: they're in contention for a playoff berth.

"Honestly, back then, no," said Patrick Nyarko when asked if he could've envisioned the Fire still being alive for the playoffs in October after de los Cobos was fired. "We all didn't know where our future lied. We didn't know what was going to happen next."

What happened next was the Fire promoted technical director Frank Klopas to the position of interim head coach. The move didn't yield immediate dividends on the field, as by August, the Fire were scraping the bottom of the MLS table.

But the attitude of the team was completely different under Klopas. Players began watching video of not only their previous game but also of opponents. Detailed scouting reports were made available, along with projected starting lineups based on more than their opponent's previous game. And, under Klopas, every player felt welcome wearing a Fire jersey.

"He came in with a real positive attitude and he included everyone. That's the difference between him and Carlos," said Nyarko. "He included everyone in game planning and built players' confidence, especially guys that had not played that much."

For all the changes in attitude and for all the improved confidence, though, the Fire still struggled to come away with three points in their matches. Draws plagued the Fire, with their MLS-record 15th coming Aug. 18 to D.C. United at Toyota Park.

"I look back at games and think, 'how did not pull three points off?'" said defender Cory Gibbs. "You look at those 16 ties, and at least more than half of them we could've said that forthose ties could've easily been wins and we could've been in a better position."

Interestingly enough, though, one of those draws may have kick-started the Fire's run from afterthought to contender.

On Aug. 3, the Fire tied Philadelphia 1-1 at Toyota Park. Klopas decided to shuffle his team's formation leading up to the match, with Nyarko moving up front alongside striker Dominic Oduro and the team's midfielders shifting into a diamond formation (one up, one back, two wide).

It wasn't that match that sparked the team, though. Ten days later, the Fire went into New York with a game plan that didn't involve Nyarko and Oduro up front. But a few hours before the match, Klopas and his coaching staff informed the team that Nyarko and Oduro would be up front.

The Fire hadn't practiced in that formation all week.

"It was a little ballsy going against New York on the road," said Nyarko. "It came out of nowhere."

Sixteen minutes into the match, Nyarko found Oduro for an equalizing goal. Midfielder Sebastian Grazzini put the Fire up with a goal in the 24th minute, and while New York ultimately knotted the match at two, the team's attack was sparked.

"Ballsy? No, I call it tactically smart," dryly said Klopas, later adding that he made the move with full confidence his team would respond well to it.

Since the match against New York, the Fire have gone 5-1-1, picking up 16 crucial points. With 37 on the year, the Men in Red still have quite a bit of work to do, but with three games remaining -- all against teams ahead of them in the standings -- a chance certainly exists that the Fire wind up in the postseason.

The list of playoff scenarios is long and complicated, although the only thing that matters to the Fire is that they win out. Nine points means they'll finish the year with 46. It won't guarantee them a playoff spot, but at least they can end the 2011 season knowing they finished strong.


"Everything doesn't mean anything if we don't make the playoffs," said Gibbs. "Yes, we feel better that we've done better, but it's meaningless if we don't win these games and get into the playoffs."

So much for that. But even if the Fire don't end up in the playoffs, these last three games will have a playoff atmosphere and intensity.

That's probably nothing in which anybody on the Fire will take solace. Missing the playoffs means those early and mid-season draws will burn more. Every shot off the goalpost, every strike that sailed high, every missed pass and defensive assignment will twist the knife a little more.

The best way to put those missed opportunities to bed is to win out.

"It's about now," said Klopas. "We can't look in the past and we can't look at what happened or might happen."

Potential Kris Bryant trade market becomes clearer after Anthony Rendon lands with Angels

Potential Kris Bryant trade market becomes clearer after Anthony Rendon lands with Angels

The first domino of this offseason’s third base market has fallen.

According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, free agent Anthony Rendon is set to sign a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

The Texas Rangers were also linked to Rendon in recent days, but they’ll now have to shift their focus elsewhere. Texas’ attention is now on the other superstar free agent third baseman — Josh Donaldson — as’s TR Sullivan reported. The same can be said about Rendon’s former team, the Washington Nationals.

This leads us to the Cubs and Kris Bryant. With Rendon off the board and Donaldson soon to follow, a potential trade market for the Cubs third baseman is growing clearer.

Only one of the Rangers and Nationals can sign Donaldson, not to mention his most recent team — the Atlanta Braves. When Donaldson’s domino falls, two of these teams will be left empty-handed in their pursuit of a third baseman.

The Los Angeles Dodgers also were linked to Rendon, though they don’t necessarily need a third baseman with Justin Turner manning the hot corner. Their pursuit of Rendon points to how they’re willing to shift Turner off third base, however. Add them to the list of teams seeking third base help.

Add that all up, and you have four teams in the market for Donaldson. The Cubs aren’t guaranteed to trade Bryant, but they’ll soon find themselves with some leverage. For the three teams that don’t land Donaldson, the most logical move will be to inquire with the Cubs about trading for Bryant. The Nationals have already inquired about Bryant, according to's Jon Morosi.

Bryant’s unresolved grievance case will be an issue in any potential negotiations. The difference between two years of control (if he loses) and one (if he wins) is big when it comes to his value. Even though they’ll have leverage over interested teams, the Cubs will yield stronger trade proposals for Bryant if he loses his case.

But, again, a trade is no certainty. What is certain is teams will be inquiring about Bryant in the not-so-distant future, once Donaldson chooses his free agent destination.

Four observations: Bulls rout Atlanta Hawks in much-needed get-right game

Four observations: Bulls rout Atlanta Hawks in much-needed get-right game

The Bulls picked up a valuable get-right win in a 136-102 blowout of the Atlanta Hawks. Observations from a game the Bulls had to win, and did handily:

The bench provided a spark (again)

Bulls starters not named Zach LaVine got off to a sluggish start in this one. At the 3:14 mark of the first, the Hawks led 29-21 and were shooting a scalding 13-for-18 (72.2%) from the field (3-for-6 from 3-point range). LaVine had 12 of the Bulls’ 21 points.

The hosts ended the period ahead 37-33, buoyed by a 16-4 run by a bench unit of Coby White, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine, Thad Young, and Daniel Gafford. Valentine hit four floaters over that stretch, Gafford had a resounding block, White had a strong and-one take over Alex Len and Thad Young tallied five points, for good measure. 

Bench runs have become commonplace for this Bulls team, even in the midst of a three-game losing streak. This one carried over into the second quarter, which the Bulls won 29-19, holding Atlanta to 6-for-21 (28.6%) shooting, 2-for-10 (20%) from three. They didn't look back from there.

Young finished the first half with nine points, four rebounds, and two assists. White had a flashy night — tallying 19 points. Valentine and Gafford connected on a handful of alley-oops (which has quickly become a tradition).

Zach LaVine bounced back

LaVine — averaging 20 points on 33.3% shooting during the team’s three-game losing streak — was ripe for a breakout, and this Hawks team (29th in the NBA in defensive rating) presented an opportunity to bounce back. He took advantage.

As mentioned, LaVine carried the Bulls offense early: he had 18 first-half points on 7-for-9 shooting. Embedded in that line were a few highlight-reel dunks that awoke the United Center:

He tacked on a cool 17 (!) in the third quarter before coming out with the game out of reach for the Hawks. LaVine finished the night leading all scorers with 35 points and shot a staggering 7-for-7 from 3-point range. When he’s on, it’s too much fun, and he dazzled in this one. 

In a favorable matchup, the defense kept rolling

Coming into this game, we knew the Bulls defense, theoretically, matched up well with Atlanta’s offense plan of attack. For the most part, that bore out, in practice.

Kris Dunn was outstanding in containing Trae Young tonight, hounding him off of every screen (where he was usually aided by a hedge from the big in coverage) and staying attached even in instances when Young was able to penetrate.

Young didn’t score until the 11:07 mark in the second quarter and finished the night with 15 points on 4-for-14 shooting (1-for-6 from three) and seven turnovers. This is the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA we’re talking about here. He did rack up 13 assists (six in the first quarter) — and some were very, very pretty — but most of those came in transition. In the halfcourt, the Bulls’ set defense effectively bottled him up.

The Hawks, as a team, committed 23 turnovers on the night, which the Bulls were able to convert into 15 points. Atlanta is an inferior opponent, yes, but it was a strong showing, nonetheless.

Blowouts are fun

This one was a little too close for comfort early on but ended in a rout. The Bulls simply outclassed the Hawks, winning statistical categories this team has often been overmatched in, from rebounds (42-40) to points in the paint (78-42), to blocks (7-4), to the 3-point battle. Lauri Markkanen even utilized garbage time to turn a fine stat line into a good one: he had 10 points in the fourth quarter, finishing the game with 22 points on 8-for-9 shooting. 

So, you know what? Rest your brain with some of the best clips of the night. You’ve earned it:





The Bulls can push questions about fourth-quarter stagnation, cold shooting streaks, and crowded rotations until this weekend. This was a solid overall performance.

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