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3 things to watch for as San Jose Earthquakes take on Chicago Fire

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Can they book a knockout round ticket Sunday?

MLS: Chicago Fire at San Jose Earthquakes Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The group-stage finale is already here for the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS is Back Tournament, as they will face the Chicago Fire for their third game Sunday.

The changed group assignments and staggered schedule means this is San Jose’s third game, and Chicago’s second. That means passage to the knockout stage depending on the result may not be definitive at the final whistle. With that, let’s go over three things to watch for from the Earthquakes.

New vs. familiar

The Quakes typically play the Fire only once a season these days, so your memories of Chicago may be hazy already, and that’s ok. They have totally overhauled their club since Chris Wondolowski broke the all-time scoring record against them last year.

There’s a new coach, in former Chivas USA player Raphael Wicky. There’s a lot of changes to the roster — in this moment of MLS, teams don’t tend to turn over their whole roster as much as they used to on total rebuilds, but there are a lot of new faces in the Chicago lineup.

So, what to expect? They’re better so far this year than the general doormats they’ve tended to be. They seem to have upgraded their talent and have the ability to execute coherent ideas as a group, which was not assured in the past for the Fire.

Having said that, I don’t necessarily think they are invincible. The Fire are also coming off a win, but they don’t have superstars on their roster and there are certainly holes. Also, while they’ve no doubt been preparing, the Fire didn’t get the chance for a long runway to prepare for Matias Almeyda’s particular style, and listen, Wicky and the new-look Fire take San Jose lightly at their peril.

Heavy legs?

The third game is here, so will the awful muggy weather everyone complains about now come to bite the Quakes? They’ve been upbeat about their fitness so far, and I think there’s something to be said for that level through two games — they’ve clearly been the more fit team and that’s paid off in bringing results.

Will that trend continue, or will San Jose hit a sweaty wall against Chicago? We’ll see, but I think the tired legs would probably be more of an issue during a long season. I think of all the ups and downs of Almeyda’s tenure at the club, fitness has not been a primary issue so far, and in a third game, it seems unlikely. But you never know, unprecedented circumstances and all.

Wrap it up

If my calculations are correct, if the Earthquakes beat the Fire they will clinch a spot in the knockout rounds, as no other team would be able to match their seven points in group play. If they draw, they would be on five points and probably good to advance, but not assured of it. A loss would leave them on four points, again still in the hunt to move on but having to sweat more over the final games in the group.

Obviously, a win is ideal, both to keep the positive momentum flowing and to win the group. Winning the group would theoretically put them in a better spot for seeding purposes (although this is MLS so who knows how much that will matter), but it will also check off one slot on their to-do list in Orlando, and Almeyda and company can begin the preparations for the first elimination game in earnest. Seems like the right call to get those three points, and we know at this point the Quakes will be doing their damnedest to accomplish that.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.