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Sunday, July 21

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Bears in Five

OMFH
by Sean Cassidy, Herman Coats & Gabe Dixon of Bearscast.com

One: Hesteria
It never gets old. Every time he touches the ball something fantastic seems to happen. And Sunday Devin Hester nearly single handedly brought the Bears back to .500. In just two plays Hester covered 170 yards and added 12 points on the board. He is the most exciting player the Bears have had in nearly two decades. I've taken to referring to Devin Hester as Superman but after seeing the potential that Hester is flashing the first several games I'm starting to wonder if we've only seen Clark Kent on his best day(s) so far. If he emerges from that phone booth, I don't even want to think what he'll do to the earthlings.

Two: Adrian Peterson's Evil Twin
It's funny, when previewing the game on our Friday podcast I wondered how many times Bears' fans would wish the Adrian Petersons would switch teams. I was torn on an exact number but it's safe to say that whatever number I would have guessed would not have been high enough. Adrian Peterson, of the Minnesota variety (henceforth to be called the Evil Twin) treated the Bears' defense like they were the early season creampuffs he was used to destroying at Oklahoma. The Evil Twin is making six other teams look like idiots for passing on him and making Bears fans feel sick thinking about facing him twice a year. Two scoring plays of more than 60 yards and an additional score of 35 yards, along with the kick return which set up the game winning field goal. The Evil Twin could've been playing with a collection of high schoolers and still beaten the Bears on Sunday. It makes the next decade look like a lot of fun for the Vikes.

Three: Alarming Turnover(s)
After winning the turnover battle for the first time all season in what looked like a season-saving win in Green Bay, the Bears reverted to their old and disastrous ways. Four Bear turnovers, including three by the steady and sure-handed Brian Griese, crippled the Bears' ability to control the clock and protect a defense that was getting gashed and more worn down by the minute. The Vikings ran the ball, stopped the run and didn't turn the ball over, and as a result beat the Bears in Chicago with a QB that's approximately 35-40 percent of Michael Vick without the K-9 issues. The game was a disaster and as long as the Bears normally outstanding defense continues to struggle stopping people, Griese and Co. must protect the ball and convert a 3rd down here and there.

Four: The Stockton Market
After biffing up a plethora of calls in last week's Cubs series that was broadcast on TBS, veteran play-by-play man Dick Stockton took his familiar seat calling NFC North games on FOX. It was nice to hear him back in his comfort zone, although clearly he thought the Vikings had won the game halfway through the 4th quarter. A difference of 14 decides a baseball game early, but note to the guy that pronounced half the Cubs roster incorrectly: when the guy returning our kicks hits a grand slam plus three every other kickoff, we're almost always in the game.

And do they have to call his broadcast partner, Brian Baldinger, "Baldy?" It'd be nice not to be forced to hear his nickname mentioned over and over throughout the telecast. Maybe they could flip Stockton's sportscasting switch... that'd fix... Bilbo.

Five: Headless Horsemen
The end result of the Bears loss to the Vikings is that they now sit at the bottom of a division which they had dominated for two years. The current state of the NFL is one of rapid turnover, where teams rapidly fall from the top and regularly rise from the depths. The mark of a great franchise is any sort of sustained success the likes of which franchises such as Indianapolis, Philadelphia and New England have obtained. And the foundation of that success has been the play of the most important position, the quarterback. The Bears have built themselves in the mold of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tampa Bay. They are a defensive powerhouse which relies on a conservative offense to not make mistakes and win close games. But as the Steelers have seen with Ben Roethlisberger, and the Ravens and Bucs have seen without consistent quarterback play, having someone who can win you the game instead of not losing it is a nice luxury to have. The Bears right now are a headless horseman with nothing to steer them back when injuries, turnovers or an "Evil Twin" day throws them off course.

Cubs in Five

This is the Year That Was(n't)
by Jeff Webber

Seemingly washed up in June, the hottest team in the game in August, division champs by October, swept by a rookie-laden Diamondbacks team in the first round of the playoffs. 2007 never lacked for drama, did it?

One: Here's a Switch: The Rotation as the Strongest Part of the Team?
After using 14 different starting pitchers in 2006 (nine of them having ERAs over 5), the Cubs used just eight this season. After Sean Marshall earned his regular slot, the Cubs found themselves with five guys who could be counted on to take the ball and turn in at lest serviceable work every fifth day (four of them with ERAs under 4), a huge change after seasons of giving away starts to guys like Les Walrond and Ryan O'Malley. Still, even our strong suit needs some improvement. The '08 Cubs will need Zambrano to find some consistency, Lilly and Hill to continue to work on their confidence in big games, and Marshall to go deeper into ballgames. Will Marquis lose his job to a converted-back-to-starting Dempster?

Two: Upheaval Behind the Plate
Michael Barrett had long had a rep as a guy who could hit and could block the plate well, but just flat-out didn't call a good ball game. Maybe that mattered less back when the arms we were sending out there were either A) consistent (pre-meltdown Zambrano) or B) so experienced they hardly needed guidance (Maddux). But with Z struggling to find himself, Lilly adjusting to a new league, and a steady influx of wet-behind-the-ears youngsters needing a steady hand, Barrett's contentious personality and weak pitch-calling abilities turned into a disaster. The Cubs ended up going through six catchers including vets Henry Blanco (a candidate to start in '08) and Jason Kendall (unlikely to be re-signed). The most interesting player to don the tools of ignorance was Geovany Soto, the 2007 Cubs Minor League Player of the Year and a late-season sparkplug who helped power the Cubs to the NL Central crown. Can he show that kind of pop for 100-130 games next year?

Three: Kids, Kids, Kids, Kids, Kids, Kids, Kids
Dusty Baker had a reputation (mostly deserved) for sticking with veterans even in the face of more promising work from younger players. Lou Piniella didn't need long to show that wasn't going to be his style. Sure, he had a weird aversion to playing Matt Murton, but he gave extended work to Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, Felix Pie and Geovany Soto in the lineup, and made Carlos Marmol the key arm in his bullpen. The thing to ponder for 2008 isn't just which of these names will be able to build on their performance to help out the 2008 team, it's how many of them will even get a chance. Will new ownership come in and throw money at free agents, leaving 2007's class of kids blocked (like they did Murton this year)? Let's hope Theriot (.672 OPS) does get bumped down to a smaller role, but Soto and Pie could prove key parts up the middle next year.

Four: Feast, Famine and $%#@ing Misery
The '07 Cubs were next to last in the league in walks in 2007, a huge contributing factor to their middling offense. With Derrek Lee's power seemingly waning, Soriano battling injuries and inconsistency and Aramis Ramirez missing 30 games, the Cubs found themselves with an offense that didn't have the power or versatility to be able to overcome their collective struggles with plate discipline. In order to win in 2007, the Cubs are going to need Ramirez and Lee to stay in the lineup, and upper management to find at least one more guy who can both take a walk and put one into the seats.

Five: Outlook for Ought-Eight
Lee and Ramirez are set at the corners, Soriano's holding down left, and the backstop will be some as-yet-unclear mix of Blanco and Soto. In center, it will be up to Pie to nail down the starting gig over Jacque Jones. DeRosa will likely continue to slip in and out of second, giving additional work to Theriot, Cedeno and/or Fontenot. But shortstop seems likely to be a target for trade. (Edgar Renteria? Miguel Tejada?) And while the Cubs already have Murton and Floyd for right field, that seems the most likely spot for the Cubs to try and find a new bat. Zambrano, Lilly and Hill are the top of the rotation, but will Marquis get another shot at the back end? Marshall seems promising but will the Cubs hang onto him or use him as a trading chip for a bat? Is Dempster closing or giving that job to Marmol and returning to the rotation? Are they going to bring back Wood and Prior?

So many questions. And the answer? It's one Cub fans know all too well:

Wait 'til next year.

Pucks in Five

Here Come the Wolves
by Jeremy Piniak

This week's Pucks in Five details a season preview for the Chicago Wolves, the impressive and cardiac-inducing start of the Blackhawks and their talented youngsters, and a "don't let the door hit you on the way out" moment at the United Center.

One: Come from Behind Kids
Regardless of whether this team has the offensive talent to make the playoffs, there is no question that this year's edition of the Blackhawks has one thing that's been missing in years past: heart. Two come-from-behind victories last week at Detroit and at home against Dallas showed this team doesn't have quit in them, and will play hard the entire 60 minutes. Last year, falling behind 2-0 in the hostile confines of Joe Louis Arena would have been a sign for the team to pack it in for the night, but the team rallied to tie the game late in the second before ex-Wing Robert Lang's powerplay goal in the third gave the Hawks the win, their second over the rival Red Wings.

The next night at the UC, rookie Dallas goalie Tobias Stephan's 38 saves stymied the Hawks the entire game until a desperate shot by Jonathan Toews deflected off of Lang and into the net with 1.5 seconds left. With a second chance in overtime, the Hawks made short work of it as Jason Williams notched the game winner in 43 seconds for the 2-1 victory. Every game the team has played this year has been a one-goal decision, and all three wins have seen the team come from behind to earn the two points, creating an electric and nerve-wracking environment for fans, but one they'll gladly accept if the Hawks keep winning tough games.

Two: Strength of Schedule
With two weeks of the season complete, the Blackhawks find themselves over .500, at a respectable 3-2. While last year's team started fast before Martin Havlat's injury took them off the rails, the team's added depth has allowed them to continue playing hard despite Havlat's injury opening night. Even more impressive when looking at the schedule is that all five games were against teams who made the playoffs last year. This week find the Hawks hosting St. Louis and Colorado before traveling to Toronto to battle the Maple Leafs — not a very big letdown from the first fortnight. St. Louis is off to an equally impressive 3-1 start this season, Colorado is expected by many to challenge Minnesota for the Northwest division crown, and Toronto is never an easy place to play. If the Hawks can continue to compete during this tough opening month, the youngsters will continue to gain confidence and could bode well for the rest of the season.

Three: Pulford Pushed Out... Prayers Answered?
After last week's news that Rocky Wirtz would take over the stewardship of the Hawks, many were left wondering what changes might be afoot. One very large part of the picture became crystal clear last week, as long-time Blackhawks senior-vice president Bob Pulford was named vice president of the Wirtz Corp. The last line in the press release stated "Pulford will be transitioning from the United Center to the Wirtz Corporation corporate offices at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive in early November," which on face value may not say much, but between the lines is a huge change for the Hawks. Pulford was Bill Wirtz's right-hand man for the past three decades, providing the hockey knowledge to go along with Dollar Bill's business acumen. Nary a move was made without Pulford's input, handcuffing many a general manager. In fact, Pulford was called upon to take over as GM or coach numerous times in his tenure, a sign that no GM was safe with Pulford waiting in the wings. While Pulford will still serve as the Hawks' liaison on NHL affairs, his move away from the United Center is a forced "retirement" and a symbol that the necessary decisions that need to be made to make the Blackhawks viable will not be held up due to old business practices.

Four: Offensive Onslaught
Last season's Chicago Wolves rode their offense to the Western Conference finals before losing to the Hamilton Bulldogs. This season the offense will again play a prominent role in the Wolves' fortunes, though with one key component missing. Last year's AHL rookie of the year Brett Sterling, who led the league with 55 goals, made the parent NHL Atlanta Thrashers, but the team should has enough offensive options to counter his promotion: Jason Krog and AHL MVP Darren Haydar, who led the league with 122 points (although Haydar was recently called up to Atlanta, he is expected to return to Chicago shortly). Other notable forwards returning are Jordan LaVallee, Steve Martins and Colin Stuart. New to the Wolves is ECHL rookie of the year Colton Fretter, and Alexandre Giroux and Jesse Schultz, who the team acquired from the Manitoba Moose and is leading the team with four points in two games. The Wolves have jumped out to a 2-0 start, and with six goals so far, the offense looks to be in capable hands and bound to be bolstered when Haydar returns from his NHL stint.

Five: Locking Down the 'D'
Much of last year's defense returns with another year of experience, with Nathan Oystrick and Brian Fahey and Brian Sipotz all back for another go with the Wolves. The team's defense was young but capable last year, so another year of experience should help solidify the blue liners While Mark Popovic made the Thrashers team out of training camp, the team has also added vets Karel Pilar and Joel Kwiatkowski to help strengthen the D. In between the pipes the Wolves have brought in 20-year-old Ondrej Pavelec, the two-time goalie of the year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Thrashers top-prospect. He replaces Michael Garnett, who was not tendered a contract, and will pair with the long-time vet Fred Braithwaite, though Pavelec will get the bulk of the starts. While last year's team relied on their offense to carry them far, the 2007-8 should be able to win games both on the offensive and defensive fronts, and their mixture should provide a solid balance to improve on last year's second-place division finish.

Fire in Five

Down To the Wire — Maybe
by Steve Gillies

I paid as little attention as possible to our pointless midweek friendly against Cruz Azul. I read somewhere that the Fire lost, but nobody got hurt so I'll call that a moral victory and move on to the stuff that matters.

One: Who Says 0-0 Games Aren't Exciting?
Anyone that says low scoring games make soccer boring should be forced to watch a tape of the Fire's 0-0 draw with DC United. The game was end to end, featured a ton of chances from both teams (though a ton more, it must be said, for the Fire), one controversial no call, and, if you were watching in a bar full of Fire fans, a palpable tension given how much this game meant to our playoff chances. In short, the game had everything. Except for goals. Which has turned into a real problem for the Fire (see point three).

Two: Get Ready to Bite Your Nails - Maybe
Getting a tie actually moved us up to seventh place since Kansas City lost. It also knocked the Columbus Crew out of the playoff picture. The bad news is that LA and Colorado also won and they're both very much in the picture. If LA can win on Thursday in New York, four teams (LA, Kansas City, Colorado and us) will be fighting for two spots, with the Fire in direct competition against LA on the final day of the season. Certainly LA's recent winning streak and the fact that the league would love to see David Beckham's team in the playoffs cause concern. At least with Colorado and KC playing on Saturday, the Fire'll be able to whip out the calculators, look at all the complicated tie-breakers, and know whether they need a win or a draw. There's actually a small chance that the Fire will have qualified before even taking the field on Sunday, which would be a welcome anticlimax.

Three: Where the Goals Aren't Coming From
With his ninth shutout of the season on Saturday, Matt Pickens tied Zach Thornton's 2001 record for shutouts. It says something about the Fire's ability to score goals this season that they're still fighting for a spot in the playoffs. Chad Barrett's problems in front of the goal are well-documented and this week proved no different. He can get open at will, and Blanco certainly has no problems picking him out. But, according to some drunken bar talk, it takes him exactly 10 clear chances to score one goal. This weekend he only had seven. (Hopefully that means he only needs three on Sunday.)

Not that Paulo Wanchope is doing any better. He looks like a shadow of his former self. Fans, who have been giving the new coach the benefit of the doubt on most everything, are beginning to grumble that Wanchope's not only been an automatic starter, but always goes the entire 90 minutes when more active players get subbed out. It could be that coach Juan Carlos Osorio is trying to make Wanchope get his fitness back the hard way. Or it could just be that Osorio, who coached him during his glory days at Manchester City, is still seeing the player that Wanchope was, not the player that he is.

Four: Where the Goals Could Be Coming From
The weird thing is we have a player with what Steve Nichol once called "a pure striker's brain" playing in midfield. And while Chris Rolfe has done a decent job back there, the Fire has enough midfielders. Rolfe gives us something that nobody else does up front and it's time to use it. Or, if it really comes down to it, we could always throw Wilman Conde up front. He played defensive midfield against DC and was outstanding. Add that to the games he's had at left back and center back, and I'm convinced he can play anywhere on the field. Just saying.

Five: How To Greet Famous People
Whether he shows up in a uniform or an expensive suit, please, for the love of soccer, boo David Beckham. Not because he's an overrated pretty boy that's more famous for being famous than for being a soccer player. Not because the league stupidly hiked prices for appearances that he couldn't actually make. This is Chicago, er, make that Chicagoland. And you should boo him because he plays for the other team. Don't let the screaming 13-year-old girls and the soccer moms win. And that goes double for Landon Donovan. Don't boo him because he embarrasses America every time he takes a penalty kick. Don't boo him because he said yes to all the glamour that comes with being the posterboy for American soccer while saying no to all of the responsibility. Sure, all those things are true, but that's not why you should boo him. Boo him because he could be the biggest threat to the Fire's playoff hopes.

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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.

Jeff Webber spends hours and hours every day taking in every printed, spoken, and broadcast word he can find about the Chicago Cubs, and each week till the end of the season he's boiling them down into five simple crib notes you can use to stay on top of any watercooler or corner bar Cubs discussion. Send comments to cubs@gapersblock.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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