First up - Jeff answer's Nerdy's questions.
The Fire are five points adrift in the Eastern Conference before the All Star break - what are the key reasons that they are languishing in the doldrums, and how can they rescue the 2016 season?
Well, it certainly has been another frustrating season for the Fire, but this one was a bit more expected. There is a new coach with a lot of young players and new faces. The main reason for the struggle has been the complete lack of offense. If David Accam is not playing, the team is almost guaranteed to go scoreless. Our highest paid player, Gilberto, was supposed to be the main striker and he left for Brazil because of how badly he was struggling.
With the anemic offense, the Fire will be banking on new signing Michael de Leeuw to add some needed creativity. The Dutch midfielder won't be in the fold until July 9, so he will be of no concern to San Jose. As far as rescuing the 2016 season, I'd say most fans hope the Fire can keep their run in the Open Cup alive and win an improbable championship for the first time in forever while booking a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Chris Wondolowski is finally back for the Earthquakes - how will the Fire deal with San Jose's leading scorer without leaving exploitable defensive gaps?
The Fire's defense has generally been very good this season. Unfortunately, any time the Fire try to play attack-minded soccer, the defense tends to lose its shape.
The club will need to rely on the center back combination of rookie Jonathan Campbell and newcomer Johan Kappelhof. The pairing has been strong most of the season with Campbell having a fantastic start to the season and Kappelhof remaining steady throughout. Campbell has struggled a bit lately, so Friday's game could either be a chance to regain his confidence with a solid performance or an opportunity for Wondo to exploit a currently off-form rookie.
It's great to see former Quake Arturo Alvarez back in MLS with Chicago Fire - how's he fitting in with the squad?
I think fans have mixed feelings on Alvarez. He had a tremendous debut in the season opener against New York City FC as the No. 10 in the attack. But since then he has been up and down, playing in both the middle and on the right side of the attack. He does lead the team in assists with three on the year so far while being hampered by injuries, so we may have not seen the best of him yet.
Speaking of injuries, he is coming off one at the moment but seems ready to make an appearance if not a start on Friday.
If the Fire want any chance of a miracle run to the playoffs, they need three points tonight before going on to some difficult road games this month. While not the better team, catching a poor road team coming from the West Coast to play on a Friday should give the Fire the edge they need.
I think they pull it off with a 2-1 victory. Accam keeps his hot streak going and Kennedy Igboananike breaks out of his slump while Quincy Amarikwa of course scores against his old team.
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Second up - Nerdy answers Jeff's questions.
1. San Jose always seems to be hanging around that red line for the playoffs come the end of the season and they are right there again at the moment. Are fans at the point where the postseason is a must this year? What would be considered a success?
Yes - Just missing the playoffs is becoming a habit, and it's a habit that the fans would really, really like to see broken. The last playoff run was ended by the LA Galaxy in 2012 at Santa Clara University's Buck Shaw stadium. The Buck is past, and now we're in the second season in our new home, Avaya Stadium, and it sure would be nice for the 13,000 season ticket holders to keep their butts in their comfy new seats through November. I consider a success to be drinking hot chocolate rather than beer in my seat.
Making the MLS Cup playoffs will be the yardstick by which this season will ultimately be judged by the fans and the front office - any progress in the playoffs will be a bonus. It's not too late in the season to make a run for the playoffs, but the trainers will have to step up their game too to get the squad back on the field to make that happen.
2. The team is on its longest winless streak of the season at five games? What has been the main reason for the drought and what does the team need to do to get back on the winning track?
The easy and quick answer is Wondo - still the team's leading scorer in 2016 despite being absent for COPA duty over the past few weeks. I do think the correlation is significant, and now that he's back, he will hopefully be back to ghosting the defenders and, if not scoring himself, deflecting the attention of the Fire defenders.
The backline and goal keeper David Bingham have been effective keeping opponents' offense to minimal scores - but the lack of offense in Wondo's absence has been problematic. Quincy Amarikwa has been up top alone, or accompanied by Adam Jahn and Chad Barrett. I expect to see "Wondo-kwa" up top in the usual 4-4 2, with a Jahn or Barrett sub in the second half -- Quincy has only recently returned from injury and might not be completely match fit.
3. San Jose has been a solid defensive team for a while now and it is no different this year. But one read over the injury report and it looks like the entire back line walked into a Michael Bay movie and was promptly blown to pieces by one of the thousands of explosions. What on earth can the Earthquakes do to fill all those holes?
Ha! -- I now have a vision of Sean Connery uttering "Welcome to The Crocked" - in the British sense of the word for injured.
I thought that as the season began the squad looked pretty deep, but then since the international break in the MLS season, the team has been hit with multiple injuries - most recently our key central defender Victor Bernardez was knocked out of the Stanford California Clasico last weekend with a knee injury - and judging by his demeanor (head in hands and slumped over) and the amount of ice they wrapped on his right knee and ankle, we may not see him return for a while. Backup defender, Argentine Andres Imperiale, had done sterling work earlier in the season, but he too is out with a calf injury.
Coach Dom Kinnear has recalled Matheus Silva from Arizona United SC of the USL to fill in the gaps, and we'll see a novel back lineup this weekend. I wonder if the current coach of AUSC, Frank Yallop, has divulged any Fire weaknesses to be exploited by the youngster. Other defensive options are Marvell Wynne, Kofie Sarkodie and Fatai Alashe.
Bonus Question: How will Quincy score his hat-trick tonight?
I'm sure Quincy's excited to return to Chicago, so with his usual, utmost effort, he will score one with his left foot, one with his right foot, and the third with a wicked deflection off the man-bun into the top right hand corner of the net.