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Sunday, December 8

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Bears in Five

Hope
by the Bearscast.com hosts

One: Can You Hear Me Now? No? Good!
For the second consecutive week the Bears decided to wait until the closing minutes of the game to finally put their offense in gear. Thankfully this time it meant taking home a victory. Perhaps it is unfair to say, but I am not in the least bit surprised that it was Brian Griese and not Ron Turner calling all the plays on the final drive. The Bears have barely managed 37 yards let alone 97 yards under Turner, so when the radio in Griese's helmet went out for the final drive it may have been a blessing in disguise. And if this was sabotage by the Eagles, around whom rumors have long swirled, like the Patriots, then all I can say is "thank you." They managed to do what Bears fans have been hoping to do all year, and look at the results.

Two: Moose Sighting
Doth my eyes deceive me!? Was that the terribly over-paid, aging possession receiver Mushin Muhammad making big plays out there on Sunday? Between the game-winning touchdown, the big 44 yard reception, the veteran timeout call and block on the Hester screen you'd think this guy was a good player or something. In all honesty it was just nice to see that the Bears got something out of their investment, and for the first time this season I felt as if Moose was really a help rather than a hinderance. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come, especially on 3WR sets with Moose in the slot (as he was on his 44 yard catch). That position allows Moose separation, since nickel corners normally give a cushion, and it gives him a great size mismatch going down the middle of the field. Dare I say the long reviled Moose and Ron Turner are starting to win me over? Maybe if we get to .500.

Three: "The Shin is Indeed Part of the Leg."
How would Bears fans survive without the sage wisdom of Dick Stockton and Brian Baldinger? That piece of in-depth analysis came on the only play that nearly resulted in a turnover Sunday. Luckily for the Bears, and especially Greg Olsen, Lovie finally won a challenge as it was ruled that Olsen's leg did touch the ground before the ball rocketed from his grasp. Still, the Bears survived the second straight game without its defense forcing a turnover by not turning it over themselves. The Bears have been self-destructive with turnovers this year and have lost at least two games because they couldn't hold on to the ball. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come as the Bears spread it out and use their TEs to help overcome a frightfully ineffective running game. This, Brian Griese, is why people wanted you to start over Rex. Thank you.

Four: Hidden Yardage
They may not have kicked to Superman, Devin Hester, this week, but his presence was felt just the same. By starting consistently at their 35 or better, the struggling Bears offense was given a nice head start that it desperately needed. Those hidden yards contributed heavily to the Bears' first four scores of the day, all field goals. It's questionable whether teams will continue to use this strategy with Hester, although the Lions (who got burned a few weeks ago) probably will. Even if teams continue to consistently kick away from Hester, eliminating his huge returns, he still has a huge impact on the game. Any Bears fan would rather watch those jaw-dropping returns, but maybe it's only a matter of time before bars start giving away free rounds for kickoff-out-of-bounds penalties, right? We can only hope.

Five: We Like Him When He's Angry, We Like Him When He's Still Injured
The reëmergence of Brian Urlacher. Twelve tackles, none that didn't matter, and our man shows up this year when the Bears needed him most. The resuscitation of Tommie Harris. Big boy got two gutsy sacks, including one on third down just before the Bears took the lead for the first time in the game. Tommie of the Middle's play has been a gauge for the Bears so far this season, and whenever he is able to hurdle his lingering leg injury and get quicker pressure, the Bears might just leap over a few teams, too.

Pucks in Five

Watch Your Toews
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Amazing Toews
The most exciting play in Chicago sports this weekend.

Words just don't do justice. Really.

Two: Coming Soon, to a Small Screen Near You
Fast forward a few months' time, and Blackhawks fans may be able to watch Jonathan Toews' United Center exploits by merely turning on the TV. When Bill Wirtz died last month, many were wondering what would happen to his long-standing policy of blacking out home games, one of the biggest grievances many fans had with the team. Rocky Wirtz has already made many changes since taking over the team, and his latest may be the biggest of all. The Hawks issued a press release announcing discussions have begun with Comcast SportsNet to televise a select slate of home games this season. While no agreement has been reached yet, according to the memo, Wirtz believes this is "the appropriate next step to re-energizing Chicago hockey fans, and creating new fans." CSN already has a schedule set, so the number of games this season will be limited, but expect a full slate of games starting next year. Hallelujah, our prayers have been answered.

Three: Martin on the Mend
After a phalanx of doctors examined injured winger Martin Havlat's shoulder, the decision was made that season-ending surgery was not necessary. Havlat will pursue an aggressive rehab schedule and is hoping to be back in the lineup anywhere from four to six week's time, depending on progress. Havlat has a history of trouble with the shoulder, already having endured two surgeries. While the Hawks offense is clicking without its sniper in the lineup, a healthy Havlat would provide an added threat and lessen some of the pressure on the youngsters to step up. Toews and Kane have had great starts, but it's easy to forget they're rookies who are bound to go through some struggles over the grind of an 82-game season. Having last year's top scorer return right before or after the team's usually disastrous November West Coast trip will be a welcome spark.

Four: Getting Goals
After a terribly anemic offense the first six games, the Hawks opened the spigots last week, notching five goals against Colorado and following it the next night with six tallies in Toronto, including five in the third period for a 6-4 win. Eleven goals in two games. Last year, the Hawks were often lucky to score 11 goals in a fortnight. It's a welcome sign that some of the players acquired to balance out the scoring depth are lighting the lamp with regularity, especially given Havlat's injury. Center Robert Lang is leading the team with five goals and rookie Patrick Kane is tops on the team with nine points. Last year's midseason trade that brought in Jason Williams has born dividends as well, as his three goals and four assists have been in clutch situations.

Another positive sign has been the resurgence in the power play. Last year's Hawks team was last in the league, and the team opened the season going zero for their first 14. After Patrick Sharp tallied the first man-advantage marker, the team has reeled off a 9-29 streak, pushing them into the top 10 in the league. The current surge is bound to tail off, but the fact the team is making crisp, clean passes and working the system for quality shots will provide many opportunities to earn victories in tight games where special teams can make all the difference.

Five: Building the Wall Back Up
Another reason for the Hawks' solid start has been the play between the pipes of Nicolai Khabibulin, as well as backup Patrick Lalime. Habby enters tonight's game tied for ninth in save percentage at .924, and in the top 15 in GAA at 2.32. Despite his 3-3 record, he has given up only six goals in the three losses, meaning he's been keeping the team in the game rather than contributing to their losses. Having Habby playing at his best is critical to the team's chances, as the youngsters on the club are prone to make mistakes. The big difference between this year and previous seasons is when the mistakes happen this year, there's confidence that Khabibulin will be there to back them up. While he still has let in a few soft goals, the number of shots and spectacular saves he's made so far has given the Hawks the goalie they thought they were signing coming out of the lockout. When Khabibulin takes a breather, Lalime has been just as strong, backstopping the team to two victories with little drop-off in play. The season is still early, but it's no stretch to say that Khabibulin's play is crucial toward the team's well-being.

Fire in Five

We're In
by Steve Gillies

So, with a massive game against "David Beckham and the LA Galaxy" to determine who would go to the playoffs and who would take early vacations, the Fire came up big with a last minute 1-0 win. A lot happened in the game, so strap yourself in. It's going to be a long column.

One: I've Never Been Prouder of Chicago Fans
It could have been bad. Before Sunday's game against LA there were plenty of people walking around in Beckham shirts. Don't get me wrong. It's great that people have been interested in Beckham and that he managed to draw a sellout crowd at Toyota Park. A real sellout — one where you can't see an empty seat and they actually added bleachers. But if you're a Chicago Fire fan, you don't want to see players on the other team cheered on more than your own. And boy, Beckham wasn't.

Beckham got booed in the first half when he warmed up. He got booed in the second half when he showed up at the halfway line to be subbed. It wasn't that people hated him though. His announcement drew a pretty big cheer. But then the first time he touched the ball the entire place erupted with boos again. People came to see him. But once they were there, they were there to see the Fire win. Toronto's fans got a lot of press this year, but Sunday proved which team has the best fans in the league. We were the first team in MLS to boo Beckham. Nobody can take that from us.

Two: You Can't Say the Fire Played for a Tie
Because of the way the results worked out on Saturday, all the Fire needed from Sunday's game against LA was a draw. LA needed to win. Sometimes that can actually work as a handicap. We all know how poorly the Fire have played this season trying to hold onto a one-goal lead, and that's effectively what this was. Throughout the game, the Fire turned in a dominant performance and created ton of chances, although typically they couldn't finish them. It started to sound like a broken record two months ago, but the Fire's finishing is consistently the worst I've ever seen from a professional team. Along with the usual suspects, even the previously infallible Wilman Conde got into the act this week, missing a chance when he was all alone with LA goalie Joe Cannon. So the longer they went without a goal, the more nervous things got. In particular in the closing minutes of the game, where a tie would put the Fire through, but they were also just one calamity away from ending their season. The Fire needed someone to score, but who would actually be able to?

Three: The Forgotten Man
Let me tell you a story. There was this right midfielder with potential. So much potential that he was picked up by English Premiere League club Manchester United. He played at their youth academy and their reserves, but he never broke into the first team. There wasn't a lot of future for a right midfielder at Manchester United those days. That job was locked up by a guy named David Beckham. So he eventually found playing time in a lower division English team, had a lot of injury problems, lost his spot and ended up moving back to his home country and finding a spot on a club team there. At least, he theoretically found a spot, but he had such a nightmare with injuries club's fans were even sure he existed. At least that was the running joke. Then this March that club, the Chicago Fire, decided to waive him. He moved home to LA, and trained with the Galaxy, of all teams. But they didn't want him. And that was that for John Thorrington's career — a player with potential that just couldn't get over his injuries.

Except it wasn't. When the Fire traded fifth choice striker Jerson Monteiro they made room to sign another midfielder. Thorrington showed up for his last chance at being a professional soccer player fit and healthy and scored four goals in four games for the reserve team. This didn't go unnoticed by the coaching staff, and Thorrington earned himself a spot as a late game substitute. So there it is. The most important game of the season and the home team can't find a way to put the game beyond doubt. All eyes are on the man from Manchester that's just been subbed in, and nobody really even notices when the Fire counters with their own midfielder from Manchester United.

I'm a big fan of goal celebrations. Not the pre-planned dance routines of Clint Dempsey. Not the acrobatics of Eddie Johnson. Not even the signature pose from Blanco. I mean, honest to goodness celebrations. When guys that never score have no idea what to do so they just go crazy and so does the rest of the team. When John Thorrington chipped Joe Cannon in injury time he just took off running, arms raised. It took half the field for the sea of red-clad teammates chasing him to catch up to him for the pile on. It was pure unadulterated joy. Let's face it. This is John Thorrington. He could pull his hamstring again tomorrow, but he won't be the punchline to a joke anymore. That moment will always be in the memory of Fire fans.

Four: Fitting In
It's been noted a few places that during LA's remarkable five game winning streak, all of those wins came without Beckham in the squad. On Sunday, LA certainly seemed to be a better team with Beckham on the field, but I can see how the chemistry issues of such a large presence can affect the way they play. Given that, it underlined how amazing it is that Blanco fit so seamlessly into the Fire lineup. Blanco, by all accounts, has done quite a lot to fit in with the group off the field, despite his superstar status and not speaking the same language as half the team.

Watching LA warm up before the game showed me something. Typical of most MLS teams in warm-ups, there was a group of starters doing their running and stretching exercises while another group of substitutes played keep-away. Unlike any MLS team I've ever seen warm up, there was a third group that consisted of one running and stretching on his own: David Beckham. It really was as advertised, David Beckham and the LA Galaxy — two separate entities. If you're being generous you could say he needed to do his own pre-game warmup due to the his injury issues. But if a guy isn't fit to warm up with the subs, he's not fit to play. And if he doesn't want to warm up with the subs, that's a whole other problem. The LA Galaxy will undoubtedly have a better year next season, but I get the feeling that the rest of his teammates don't really even know David Beckham yet.

Five: Our Playoff Chances Depend On How We Take Our Playoff Chances
By virtue of winning the match, the Fire ended with seventh place in the league and an opening round playoff tie with DC United. Despite DC having the best record in the league, most Fire fans would gladly take the DC match-up. The Fire played DC tough this season (two draws, one loss when we were losing to everyone). They've also built a reputation of being a bogey team for DC through the years, notably by beating them in the 1998 MLS Cup Final, as well as thrashing them 4-0 in the 2005 playoffs on the best birthday I've ever had. And the way the Fire have played over the past few months, they can be a match for anyone in the league. But having said that, I just don't see how a team that misses so many open goals and one-on-ones can win a championship.

It will also be interesting to watch how the recent attendance carries over into the post-season, but that might be a whole other column. For now, we're in the playoffs. Go Fire.

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About the Author(s)

Sean Cassidy, Herman Coats and Gabe Dixon are the hosts of Bearscast.com, the best and brightest Bears podcast, part of the Chicago Sportscast Network. Now with perfect pronunciation of "Adewale Ogunleye"...by one of the hosts anyway. Go listen. Send comments to hosts@bearscast.com.

Jeremy Piniak grew up watching hockey on all levels and is a lifelong Blackhawks fan who, inexplicably, still has hope that Bill Wirtz will once again provide Chicago with a championship hockey team and broadcast home games on TV, though he still mourns the destruction of Chicago Stadium. Every week he'll bring you five talking points on the state of hockey in Chicago (including, when possible, the minor-league Wolves and Hounds). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

Steve Gillies has been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com.

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