Fire travel to Pacific Northwest, face Sounders

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Fire travel to Pacific Northwest, face Sounders

Friday, April 8, 2011Posted: 5:20 p.m.

By Dieter Kurtenbach
CSNChicago.com

Last Wednesday, the Fire played in front of a spattering of home fans in Peoria. This weekend, theyll take the field in front of 36,000 green-clad supporters.

Only in MLS.

The Fire open a two-game west coast swing Saturday at Qwest Field in Seattle, taking on the Sounders before a Thursday night tilt against the expansion Portland Timbers.

Seattle, a team expected to contend for the MLS Cup, has gone winless in its first four matches this season, losing to the Galaxy and the Red Bulls before drawing with Houston and San Jose.

Fire captain Logan Pause knows that the Emerald City natives will be restless come Saturday.

Its a special place in Seattle, theres no denying that, Pause said of Qwest Field, which has averaged crowds of 36,318 this season. They havent won yet this year, so it leads to a little bit of a dangerous recipe. We have to be wary of that and know that theyre going to come in with a whole lot.

Pause and the Fire would be wary either way Seattle is amongst the deepest teams in the league, and the Sounders might have the best midfield in all of MLS.

That four-man midfield goes five-deep with talent any squad would envy. The mercurial Brad Evans is one of the most dangerous central midfielders in the league, evidenced by his goal last week against San Jose, and Osvaldo Alonso is the key cog of a Seattle machine that has won back-to-back US Open Cups in 2009 and 2010. Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez, who played for Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup, fortify Seattles attack out wide, and versatile Swedish import Erik Fribergs form in his first MLS games is making team owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer look like a genius.

Add in the dangerous forwards Steve Zakuwani and Freddy Montero and a dependable backline led by James Riley, and it should come as no surprise that Seattles expectations for the 2011 season were high.

But things have not gone as expected through four games, and while Pause doesnt want to read into Seattles struggles too much, he knows the Sounders are eager to prove to their home fans that the first four games were flukes.

Lets be honest its four games, Pause said after practice Thursday. Theyve got 30 more to go. Its by no means indicative of really what that teams about. You know that they are going to be bringing it on Saturday, thats for sure.

Any player will tell you that the first 20 minutes of the game is vital, but the Fire are giving the start of the game even more credence this week. The Fire players expect a relentless onslaught of an attack from Seattle to start the game.

I think we have identified that thats probably whats going to happen, Pause said. Not getting a win yet, you know that theyre going to come out flying, especially in front of their home fans. Were not worried about that. We expect thats going to happen, so we prepare for that.

Pauses role in central midfield will be to quell the Seattle attack and create counter attacks if an overeager Seattle leaves openings. Pauses role as captain will ask him to be the coolest head on the pitch and transfer that calmness to his teammates, even if Seattle brings waves of pressure against the backdrop of 36,000 fans.

It will be a great learning experience and Im sure a little bit of a shock for young guys who havent experienced that sort of atmosphere, Pause said. But regardless if its in front of 40,000 or in front of a couple thousand in Peoria, the game is the same.

Fire Head Coach Carlos de los Cobos doesnt see Qwest Field as a challenge that needs to be fought. Last season, the Fire played one of their best games of the season in Seattle and looked poised to draw on the road, but Montero capped his double in the ninety-second minute to steal a 2-1 win for the Sounders.

The Fires roster is hardly the same less than a year later. Its possible that as few as four players could make the start for Chicago in both the 2010 and 2011 matches. De los Cobos raved about his roster after training Thursday and spoke of the unique opportunity his team and its strong personality has ahead of it.

Its beautiful, de los Cobos said. I wish to always play with this ambiance. Its beautiful to play with at full stadium. And the motivation is the same way, because we need to show in front of 38,000 people that we are a good team.

NOTES: Defender Corey Gibbs will travel with the team to the West coast and could start on Saturday. Centerback Josip Mikulic will remain in Chicago and will miss at least the games against Seattle and Portland. De los Cobos could not say when Mikulic could be expected to return to the lineup. Dasan Robinson or 21-year-old Yamith Cuesta will replace Mikulic in the starting lineup, and if Gibbs proves unable to play, both will start.

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

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USA TODAY

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

There were six teams deserving of reaching the College Football Playoff this season. But there were only four spots.

But what if there were more spots?

An expansion of the Playoff field to eight teams has seemed inevitable from the day the four-team system was announced. Four more Playoff games means oodles more TV viewers, which means oodles more dollars.

And then we wouldn't be having all these arguments, either — but that's nonsense because of course we would, trying to figure out who got snubbed from the expanded bracket.

But this season's emphasis on the conference-champion debate might kick the efforts to expand the Playoff into high gear. Just take it from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Now, technically speaking, there are 10 FBS conferences, each of which crowns a champion at the end of every football season. Emmert is obviously referring to the Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. He might want to pick his words a bit more carefully, considering he represents the other five conferences — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — too, but his point remains understood.

This season has sparked a ton of controversy as the Playoff selection committee opted for the first time to include a team that did not win its conference, Ohio State, and it picked the Buckeyes over the Big Ten champs, Penn State. Plus, Big 12 champion Oklahoma was passed over in favor of non-champion Ohio State, too, actually falling behind another non-champion from the Big Ten, Michigan, in the final Playoff rankings.

With that decision brought the reasonable question of how much a conference championship should matter in getting a team into the final four and competing for a national championship.

The Playoff committee's mission is to pick the country's four best teams, and there aren't many people out there that will argue that Ohio State isn't one of the country's four best teams. But there's something to be said for winning a conference championship because if the Buckeyes can waltz into the Playoff without even playing in the Big Ten title game, why even have a conference championship game — besides, obviously, earning one more night of big-time TV money.

And so the call for an expanded Playoff bracket has reached perhaps its greatest volume in the short time the Playoff has existed. The obvious solution to Power Five conference champions continually being boxed out is to lock in five spots on the bracket for the five conference champions. Then, guarantee a spot for the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences, and you're left with two "at-large" spots that this season would've gone to Ohio State and Michigan, two of the highest-profile programs in the country sure to drive TV viewership in battles against conference-champion Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma teams. And P.J. Fleck's undefeated Western Michigan squad takes the final slot.

That's quite the field. But if you think it would've solved all this year's problems, you're wrong. Still there would've been outcry that red-hot USC didn't make the field. The Trojans are playing so well that they could very well win the whole thing, despite their three early season losses. That debate over snubs will exist forever, no matter the size of the field, something we see play out each and every season in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Also, what a damper an expanded bracket would put on the final few weeks of the regular season. Ohio State's game against Michigan, the highest-rated game of the college football season with more than 16 million people watching, would've been effectively meaningless. No matter who won or lost, both teams would've made that eight-team field, right?

Additionally, another round of Playoff football would expand the season to 16 games for some teams. That means more physical demands on student-athletes and a season cutting deep into January, which would impact their educational and time demands.

But again, an expansion of the Playoff bracket has always seemed inevitable. There's too much money to be made, and at the same time fans seem to be all about that idea. People love the postseason for good reason, and the win-or-go-home nature of the NFL playoffs make those games the most-watched sporting events of the year.

Now the NCAA president is chiming in with hopes of an expanded field. So really isn't it just a matter of time?

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

CSN's Chris Boden and Tracey Myers have the latest on the Blackhawks in the Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a tough few weeks for the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks are down two key players in captain Jonathan Toews and goaltender Corey Crawford, and now may be without defenseman Brent Seabrook who sustained an upper-body injury in Tuesday's victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

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While the Blackhawks haven't had much luck on the injury front, their upcoming two opponents are in the same boat.

"You look at the New York Rangers, a very talented team, but this is what every team goes through every season. Your depth gets tested," Myers said.

Check out what else Boden and Myers had to say about the team's upcoming matchups in this week's Honda Road Ahead