Ante Razov should play for the Cubs.
Razov plays forward for the Fire, Chicago's Major League Soccer franchise, and he choked so badly November 23 in the MLS Cup final that his performance seemed painfully familiar. In a game televised nationwide from Carson, California, the Fire lost to the San Jose Earthquakes 4-2, though they came in with the best record in the league and seemed to have every advantage but home field. The Fire disappointed their fans, to be sure, but I'm not certain that defeat didn't do more than victory would have to endear them to the rest of Chicago. Another MLS championship would likely have been dismissed by most of the city's sports fans as good fortune they wanted no part of. "Sure," they would have argued, "it makes sense that if Chicago wins anything it's in a bush-league sport like pro soccer." The Fire's loss--and, more than that, the way they lost--seemed to confirm their position in the city's sports scene. The Fire at last belonged.
Razov came into the MLS semifinals on a hot streak, with five goals in five games and five points (two goals and an assist) in the Fire's previous two playoff games. He combined with muscular and sturdy rookie forward Damani Ralph and fleet, offensive-minded midfielder DaMarcus Beasley to give the Fire a formidable three-man attack. Yet Razov had played miserably in the 1-0 overtime semifinal win against the New England Revolution at Soldier Field, and after a week fighting off a cold or flu he was even worse in the MLS Cup final.
But if Razov was the main goat, the loss was a team effort--as all Chicago losses are in the end (no Bartmans without Gonzalezes). In a sport known for its lack of scoring, San Jose posted a goal in the first five minutes on a free kick following a foul just outside the goal box. The Quakes' Ronnie Ekelund converted with a mighty blast that curled just inside the right post, but it never would have gotten that far if a couple of the Fire players in the defensive wall hadn't flinched, creating an aperture for it to go through, in the process screening goalie Zach Thornton. Minutes later, the Fire got a free kick on a foul at almost the exact same spot on the opposite end, but Razov's one-hopper was captured by San Jose goalie Pat Onstad. Then Razov got another free kick just outside the box, but again a one-hopper was easily handled by the goalie.
Down that early goal, the Fire controlled the play for most of the first half. Yet Beasley, freed down the left side, had a crossing shot deflected just wide, and Ralph was thwarted on a couple of good shots. With ten minutes to play in the first half, the Quakes' flashy U.S.-born Landon Donovan sneaked past the Fire defense--literally right behind the distracted Carlos Bocanegra--and got off a kick past Thornton. Donovan, who looks like the smarmy little villain Johnny the Boy in the original Mad Max, went dashing around with his shirt off.
A long intermission allowed the Fire to compose themselves, and Beasley scored three minutes into the second half on a difficult low-angle shot that somehow slipped between Onstad and the post from deep down the left-hand side. But the Fire players were so busy congratulating themselves on getting back into the game that they immediately let the Quakes' Richard Mulrooney run through the defense, and he scored on a crossing kick that rolled just under the diving Thornton's big paw. The Fire's opening flurry had been undone. Yet they worked a lovely play about ten minutes into the half, when Evan Whitfield threw the ball in from the right side and took a return pass in an open area for what amounted to an impromptu corner kick. With Ralph pressuring the defense, the Quakes' Chris Roner got so flustered he headed the ball into his own goal. It was 3-2 Quakes, but the Fire had all the momentum.
That was when Razov rose to the occasion as only a true Chicago star can. Ralph was dragged down in the box, and Chicago coach Dave Sarachan gave the penalty kick to Razov. Penalty kicks are converted the vast majority of the time, but Razov telegraphed that he was going low to the left-hand corner, and Onstad dived and blocked it. Moments later, Razov broke free of the Quakes' defense but couldn't control a high, bouncing pass. When San Jose was called for a hand ball just outside its own box at the 68-minute mark, Razov again took the kick, but he booted it into an unflinching wall of defenders, and it bounced away. Having squandered so many opportunities to tie the game, the Fire surrendered an insurance goal three minutes later when the defense totally lost track of Donovan, who deflected in a centering pass as if he were Phil Esposito sitting in the crease. It was 4-2 Quakes, and that's the way it would end, though Razov did have one last humiliation to endure. Ralph made a lovely crossing pass from deep down the side, and Razov came in with an open net in front of him; all he had to do was deflect the ball in. He whiffed, almost tripping over it.
Ante Razov, meet Alex Gonzalez and Mark Prior. Fire fans, have a seat with your Cubs compatriots. After all, how many Michael Jordans can one city have?
The Bears, meanwhile, were following that other familiar trajectory of Chicago teams, the one that sees them crash and burn, disappointing all around them, then revive to show frustrating flashes of what might have been--and what yet may be in, yes, seasons to come. At halftime of the MLS Cup game and again after it was over, I tuned in to catch the Bears in Denver against the Broncos. Their season was all but over. After a 1-5 start they'd saved face with a couple of victories over the lowly Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers, but then blew chances to beat the Lions again and upset the Saint Louis Rams thanks to missed field goals by the suddenly erratic Paul Edinger. But just when a fan was ready to write them off they came roaring back. After surrendering an early Denver touchdown, the Bears got three Edinger field goals to give them a 9-7 halftime lead. The Broncs converted a field goal of their own to retake the lead in the third quarter, but then quarterback Kordell Stewart--in a homecoming of sorts for the Colorado alumnus--came off the bench to replace the injured Chris Chandler and marched the Bears to a touchdown. Stewart, the Pittsburgh import who wore out his welcome with the Steelers, is known more for his ball carrying than for his throwing, so it was fitting that a 15-play drive should end with five straight Stewart carries, two of them coming on fourth down, both inside the Denver ten-yard line. Handed a 16-10 lead, the Bears' defense stiffened, and Stewart moved the offense just far enough to give Edinger a 47-yard kick, which he hit to make it 19-10 Bears. They maintained that lead to the end with the help of a couple of nice plays by rookie cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman, one of them snuffing a Denver field-goal attempt.
Back home at Soldier Field last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals and Dave McGinnis--the head coach who was almost hired by the Bears but rejected their offer, clearing the way for Dick Jauron--the Bears looked even better. Stewart, starting for Chandler, marched the Bears to their first opening-drive touchdown of the season, and though the defense gave a field goal right back, after that Jauron's attrition strategy held. The Bears almost added another score on the closing drive of the half, but rookie Justin Gage was called for a bogus pass-interference penalty after making a lovely leaping catch at the goal line.
Another rookie, Brock Forsey, was having a career game subbing for ailing tailback Anthony Thomas. An undersized and seemingly slow runner, Forsey brought to mind memories of Brian Piccolo with his quick feet and crafty way of slithering through small holes in the line. He helped the Bears march into field-goal range at the end of the third quarter, but then Edinger missed his second kick of the day. Memories of the Bears' collapses against the Rams and Lions afflicted the hometown fans. But on the very next play, R.W. McQuarters picked off a miserable pass by Arizona quarterback Jeff Blake and returned it to the Cardinals' 12 yard line. After a Forsey run, Stewart hit Dez White on a nice slant-in for a touchdown that made it 14-3, and the rout was on. The defense held, and Forsey's runs opened things up for Stewart to hit White on the sideline for a first down at the Arizona two. Stewart scrambled for another touchdown and it was 21-3. The Bears weren't done, either. Rookie defensive end Michael Haynes--anyone notice a pattern here?--stripped Blake of the ball and Alex Brown fell on it at the Arizona 34. Then the Bears put in a two-tight-end lineup and pounded Forsey down the Cardinals' throats until he scored on a swerving run around left end. By that time Forsey had amassed well over 100 yards on the day. The Bears coasted home, cornerback Jerry Azumah applying the coup de grace with an interception in the final minute.
The 28-3 win put the Bears at 5-7, with legitimate playoff hopes if they can run the table for four more wins. The really scary thing is that--but for Edinger's midseason slump--they could easily be 7-5 after their 1-5 start. If Jauron has been fighting to save his job (and make no mistake, he has), the person whose stature has really soared is general manager Jerry Angelo, who has gotten impressive play out of rookies--Haynes, Tillman, Gage, linebackers Lance Briggs and Joe Odom, and now Forsey, like Odom plucked by Angelo in the sixth round. As bright a future as they promise, the Bears have to deal with the present, as they go to Green Bay this weekend and welcome the North Division-leading Minnesota Vikings to Chicago next week. If Chicago tradition holds, they'll collapse now that they've got fans thinking playoffs. That familiar scenario would find the Bears playing this year's White Sox to the Fire's Cubs.