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Saturday, July 20

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Cubs in Five

Sweet Release
by Jeff Webber

Thank god, it's over. Another Cubs season has come to an awkward end. Just gather your things and try to leave quietly. You can use our toothbrush. We'll tell our roommate you were a cousin in from out of town.

One: Dusty Is Gone; No, Really, It's Official Now
href="http://chicago.cubs.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/news/article.jsp?ymd=20061002&content_id=1695212&vkey=news_chc&fext=.jsp&c_id=chc" title="told you it was for real">See? Hey, I think we might have discussed the whole Dusty situation once or twice by now. Yeah? I thought so. You know the expression "Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out"? I think the average Cub fan's reaction to Baker's departure could be summed up as "Do let the door hit your ass on the way out. Let it knock you down right on your face. Let it knock out a coupla teeth."

Two: Yeah, That New Manager Thing
Yeah, we wish there was more news to report, too. Your basic choices are: Joe Girardi, assuming the Marlins fire him (a safe bet)... a loudmouth motivator in the Ozzie Guillen mode... pass; Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta's third base coach, an unknown, one of GM Jim Hendry's cronies, the cheap, low-key choice; Lou Piniella, another high-profile, old-school manager with a mixed record, i.e., Dusty II; and Bob Brenly, the World Series-winning D-Back skipper turned Cubs color commentator, the "safe choice." Yeah, we're not sure if we care, either.

Three: Dumbest Thing We Could Do This Off-Season; or, Re-Signing Juan Pierre
Jim Hendry is this close to launching a bid to re-sign centerfielder Juan Pierre to a deal, likely extending three years at a cost of $8 to $10 million a year. Yes, a "leadoff hitter" pushing 30 who gets on base at a below average rate and plays crap defense. Even dumber than that Jacque Jones deal — though, come to think of it, Jones might not be so bad for a centerfielder, compared to Pierre anyway.

Four: Next Year's Rotation...
The limping bodies of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, preceded by Carlos Zambrano, and followed by some combination of Rich Hill (who spent the last month of the season making me forgive his existence, but only just), Sean "He of the 5.59 ERA" Marshall, Carlos "I Make Marshall Look Like Bob Gibson" Marmol, and Angel "Why Must I Shame Cubs in Five So Much for Predicting My Greatness" Guzman. Maybe some Juan Mateo, maybe some Ryan O'Malley. I'd stock up on Rolaids.

Five: And Finally, This Year's Winner of the "Least Embarrassing Cub Award" Goes To...
Aramis Ramirez, who may not even be a Cub come New Year's. Say, have we told you about Scotty Moore?

Reserving the right for more postmortem later...

Sox in Five

...is rooting for the Oakland A's and *gulp* them damn Yankees.
by Steve Gozdecki

Bears in Five

King of the NFC Mountain
by Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon and friends

One: Name a Better Defensive Line. We Dare You.
The backups play like starters. The starters play slightly like gods, football gods, at times. The Bears' defensive line sacked Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck five times on Sunday night. This isn't even factoring in the amount of hits, knockdowns and hurried throws. Numbers like that are starting to become a usual sighting in the box score. We know what you're thinking: The Jacksonville Jaguars. Perhaps you need to take a closer look at Tommie Harris' shoulder muscles, which come down to his elbows. If opposing players aren't terrified, testing their mental capacity might be in order.

Two: Chicago, We Definitely Have a Quarterback.
Grossman. Say the name. Experience the name. Live the name. True, there have only been four weeks of football. No one is saying he's going to make the Pro Bowl. No one here is saying he isn't yet, either. You know how we call the Packers the Favre Bay Favres? Well, welcome to the Grossmago Grossmans.

Three: Thank You for Waiting.
The Bears did something on Sunday night that they had yet to accomplish this season: establish a running game. Thomas Jones finally had the game we had been waiting for. While it's true that 98 yards rushing and two touchdowns aren't eye popping, it's something we as Chicago Bears fans have come to expect on a weekly basis. And that's something that has been expected since the advent of Bears football. Cedric Benson also had some nice runs in the limited time that he played. And with more work, watch out. If the two of them catch fire this offense has limitless potential.

Four: Gould, R.
He looks like the guy whose locker was next to yours in high school. He also hasn't missed a kick yet this season. I bet the guy whose locker was next to yours back in high school can't say that. Unless, of course, your locker was next to Robbie Gould's. Then I guess he could say that.

Five: Thank you for waiting. (Part II)
This is more Bears in Five related than Bears related. Deadlines were missed and some tears were shed. Maybe not the tears. Be mad at Craig, not Ramsin. But we are back.

Fire in Five

We Won the Cup
by Steve Gillies

One: It was Practically Over in the First 20 Minutes
If you can't tell by the title of the column, the Fire won the US Open Cup last Wednesday by beating LA 3-1. You could tell the team was definitely up for the game by the way they came out and absolutely dominated LA for the first 20 minutes. During that period LA barely touched the ball except to kick off after getting scored on twice. It was the best spell of soccer I've seen from the Fire in a very long time. There was a bit of a letdown at the beginning of the second half and LA scored a goal to make it interesting. The Fire held on defensively and then Tony Sanneh broke forward to set up a Thiago goal that finished the game off in the 88th minute, but really the Fire won that game with that first 20.

Two: Kings of the Cup
That's the Fire's fourth US Open Cup trophy. Not bad considering the team's only been around since 1998. So why has the Fire been the dominant team of this tournament? I think it's because the Fire as an organization has always respected the history of the soccer in the United States more than the rest of MLS has. That's why the Fire fought to host every round of the tournament at Toyota Park. That's why they have Chicago Sting tribute nights, while Cosmos is a dirty word in New York. And that's why the Fire goes into this tournament every year with a lot more hunger to win than other MLS teams.

Three: Watch That Celebration and Tell Me the US Open Cup Isn't a Big Deal
You could tell how much the Cup win meant to the players once the celebrations started. The foreign players did their victory lap wearing the flags of their countries draped around them, the children of players (dressed in Fire jerseys) came onto the field to celebrate with their parents, and a lot of guys got teary-eyed. My favorite moment came when the final whistle blew and Zach Thornton, dressed in a suit, sprinted onto the field and hugged Matt Pickens, the backup goalkeeper whose stellar play may have cost Thornton his job.

I have another favorite moment that I didn't actually see, so I don't know if I can really call it a favorite moment. But I heard that when the Fire took the trophy over to Section 8, Pickens took off his winner's medal and gave it to former GM Peter Wilt, who had been there cheering the team on despite being controversially fired last season. Wilt's the biggest reason for that whole "the Fire respects soccer history" thing I was going on about in the last paragraph. Hearing about a younger player making that kind of gesture is particularly heartening. Add to that the fact that back in 1998 when the Fire won their first US Open Cup, Wilt took his own winner's medal and threw it into the crowd, and you can see why some people kind of love this team.

Four: Take a Second for The Guys that Didn't Play
One of the downsides of having the kind of depth that the Fire has been lauded for this season is that when the big games come around, someone very deserving is going to have to sit the bench. This time it was Calen Carr. He scored a lot of the goals that got the Fire to the US Open Cup Final, but Sarachan went with the more seasoned Andy Herron and Chris Rolfe to start the game. The Fire's early lead meant they didn't need to sub on a striker, so Carr had to watch the entire game from the bench.

Raising the trophy in street clothes had to be a bittersweet moment for Chris Armas, who missed the game due to a red card in the previous round. It's just one of many big games Armas has had to miss in his career, and it isn't quite the tragedy that getting injured before the 2000 Olympics, the 2002 World Cup and the 2006 World Cup was. Still, Armas doesn't have too many big games left in his career, and his missing this one makes you really want to see him playing in the MLS Cup Final in Dallas this year.

Five: So of Course We Played Miserably on Saturday
Yeah, of course we lost to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, getting scored on by a 16-year-old in the process. It was one of the worst games the Fire have played this year, which if you go back to the beginning of the season is really saying something. I think they managed only one real chance on goal. I'm willing to give them a pass for this one though, just three days after the big Open Cup win, with a playoff spot already secure and playing against a Red Bull team that's fighting for their season. Sure, they'll need to get back on track for the playoffs, but one lousy game on artificial turf with football markings isn't going to spoil my mood.

Pucks in Five

And Now the Fun Begins
by Jeremy Piniak

It's officially October, and that means the usual end of baseball in Chicago (last season notwithstanding) and the eyes of the city shift west toward the United Center to cheer on the hometown Hawks. And then I'm rudely awoken from my dreams. In reality, the Bears rule the fall, regardless of their performance (this year, deserved), and come January the Blackhawks are usually well out of the race. That said, after winning the most games of any NHL team in the preseason, there is reason to have optimism going into the season. Whether it's justified remains to be seen.

One: OK, Now This Time it Counts
Finishing the preseason 7-1 is like wearing a brand new suit to a job interview. It'll give you confidence and make you look good, but says absolutely nothing as to your ability to get the job done. Starting Thursday in Nashville, the Blackhawks are looking sharp as they get off the elevator and walk into the office to face the daunting Predators in their season opener.

Nashville won 49 games last year and was expected to challenge deep into the playoffs before they lost goalie Tomas Vokoun to a blood condition, and subsequently lost in the first round to San Jose. Vokoun is back and healthy, and the Preds added more firepower to an already potent offense, making them a Stanley Cup contender. While Chicago's preseason success came against bottom-feeding teams, their Central Division opponents will be a true measuring stick to see how improved the 2006-7 team is.

Two: Rosters Set. For Now.
Following Saturday's 4-1 victory against the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks made their final cuts, sending seven players down to Norfolk. While the majority of the team was pretty well locked in, there were some surprises in the battle for the few open spots. Forwards Adam Burish and Matt Keith and enforcer Reed Low were the three players kept to complete the roster, as Michael Blunden, Brandon Bochenski, Dave Bolland and Jonas Nordqvist were sent to the Admirals. Burish is a rookie to the team after winning an NCAA Championship at Wisconsin last year, and Keith had a solid if unassuming training camp.

The Blackhawks opted not to carry a seventh defenseman, sending down big-hitting Dustin Byfuglien along with Danny Richmond and James Wisniewski. Given that veterans Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore were injured the majority of the year, it's surprising they wouldn't have an extra D-man around, but Byfuglien will be called up in no time if a starter goes down, and Cam Barker returns from his ankle injury in a month.

Most of the cut forwards are young and talented, and regardless of how well they have looked in the preseason, they will benefit from more ice-time in Norfolk. Depending on injuries and how well the Blackhawks are performing, many of them will spend time this season wearing the Indianhead sweater, especially Bochenski and Bolland.

Three: Gooning it Up
One of the more controversial players making the team this year is Reed Low, a 30-year-old journeyman who was signed as a free agent over the summer. Low was brought aboard to be an enforcer and protect stars like Martin Havlat — in other words, to fight. Fighting, for better or worse, is and will always be a part of the game, though in the post-lockout offensive NHL its occurrence is much more haphazard. The need for a specific enforcer isn't necessary in today's league, provided a team can be physical and mix it up when required. Case in point, Duncan Keith's going after Columbus' Klesla after he injured Tuomo Ruutu's knee. I don't have a problem with the fisticuffs, but Low brings nothing else to the table. He's more of an offensive liability than a threat and is only likely to play when his presence is needed. Chicago's team has been molded to be swift and speedy, and the lumbering Low does not mesh with the new team ideal. That said, a physical, grinding fourth-liner is one thing the Hawks currently lack, but a more well-rounded player in that role would be more beneficial than the one-dimensional Low.

Four: Rudy! Rudy!
The other big surprise making the team was left-winger Jeff Hamilton, a 29-year-old career minor-leaguer with only 14 games of NHL experience for the Islanders. Hamilton was invited to camp on a tryout basis, and based on his spectacular effort was signed to a one year contract Sept. 29. Although Hamilton will center either the third or fourth line, his signing had more to do with his performance on the powerplay. Of his team-leading eight points, six of them came with the man advantage. Hamilton has always been a scorer, averaging nearly a point a game in the AHL, but was never able to catch on in the NHL. While it remains to be seen whether he can continue his performance once the games matter and the rosters are set, the Blackhawks will be depending on Hamilton to make their powerplay the resurgent force it's been so far, and success could hinge on his ability to continue to step up.

Five: Prognosticating Playoffs
With the season opening Wednesday, I'm throwing my hat into the ring regarding playoff predictions, just so I have proof of how wrong I was next spring. I've already said that while I see a strong improvement in the Hawks fortunes, but I still think they'll come up a couple points short of a playoff berth, having a few too many off nights. So who does earn a shot at the Stanley Cup? Nashville and Detroit skate into the spring, with Nashville earning the Central crown. San Jose and Calgary will win the Pacific and Northwest divisions, respectively. Anaheim will continue its strong showing from last year after signing Chris Pronger. Dallas is another year older, and though they still have the talent, this is the year the slide begins, clearing the way for Edmonton and Vancouver to pick up the six and seven seeds, and Columbus to sneak in at number eight.

Eastern division champs are the New York Rangers, a strong Buffalo team, and Tampa Bay sneaking past defending champ Carolina, who will still earn a seed and a chance to repeat. Also coming out of the Southeast is Atlanta, while the always strong Atlantic rivals New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers join Ottawa in the postseason, as they usually do. While the Blackhawks watch the Cup finals on NBC for yet another year, the Sabres take the next step from their Eastern Conference final run last year to battle San Jose, with the Sabres skating away with Stanley in six games.

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About the Author(s)

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.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's 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

Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon and friends are not really friends but rather fierce competitors on the fantasy gridiron. They meet weekly to embarass each other with random football trivia at the Noble Street League HQ. This is where they write their column. Craig knows where every professional athlete went to college, and in some cases the names of their roommates. Creepy. Send comments to bears@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

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