The Chicago Fire return to action tonight after a long break due to the FIFA International calendar. Their opponent is a familiar one as the Fire played the San Jose Earthquakes twice in the last week in May. The first game was the infamous U.S. Open Cup game where Chicago advanced thanks to San Jose's Scott Sealy hitting the crossbar on the last PK attempt. Chicago had to come back from being down 2-0 just to advance into penalty kicks and Gonzalo Segares received a questionable red card in overtime for verbal reasons with the referee. The MLS Regular Season match that followed included two more Fire comebacks. The see-saw game ended in a 2-2 draw thanks to a Cory Gibbs header in the 80th minute.
More on both teams, what to look for tonight, and in-game comments after the break.On the morning of June 12, San Jose had a 5-4-4 record and a six game undefeated streak. That was the high point of their season. San Jose has not won a game since then and are 0-6-7 in their last 13 games. 2010 MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski had 6 goals in the team's first 13 games but only has 3 goals in their last 13. His presence in the lineup can not be underestimated. Former Fire goalie and current Earthquakes starting keeper Jon Busch will likely wear a protective mask after suffering an accidental elbow to the face in a recent game against Toronto FC. The presence of half good health and half bad health is a bit of a metaphor for the entire team. Newly starting left back Justin Morrow is doubtful with a hamstring strain, forwards Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart will definitely miss the game, and Bobby Convey is out due to yellow card accumulation. Starting midfielder Brad Ring is listed as probable and I expect he'll be pushed into the lineup to make up for all the other absences.
Chicago's only problem will be coming up with the right left back to start. Gonzalo Segares will miss his first game of the season due to yellow card accumulation. Possible LB starter Mike Banner has re-injured himself and is out. MLS rookie Pari Pantazopoulos will likely start. Pari's recent appearances in Reserves League games have not been rated highly but the Fire do not have much better options after releasing Bratislav Ristic to open an international slot to sign Pavel Pardo. The fact that the major concern going into tonight's match is who will start at LB is a compliment to the rest of the team. Chicago is 2-0-2 in their last four games and have won their last two. The Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini signings continue to flourish.
Look for an aggressive game from San Jose that focuses on shutting down Grazzini and Pardo. The Earthquakes are outmatched at this point and possibly would be even at full health. The number one player that needs to take advantage of any extra focus on Grazzini and Pardo is Marco Pappa. His role has turned to the defensive in the last couple of games but if the goals aren't coming, Pappa needs to step up. Dominic Oduro can't score a goal in every game. Grazzini and Pardo aren't sneaking up on anyone anymore. Pappa hasn't scored since June 26th against New York. It's time for him to find a little success and lighten the load for others.
My prediction is Chicago Fire 2 - San Jose Earthquakes 0. Chicago keeps their winning streak going against a depleted San Jose Earthquakes team that is struggling to begin with.