The first-place Chicago Fire, fresh off of Sunday's disaster against FC Dallas, will be looking to reverse their fortunes Friday night when they take on the Houston Dynamo at Toyota Park.
For the second game in a row, the Fire will be missing players due to international duty. Midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco (who is with the Mexican National team) will miss his second straight game, while defenders Bakary Soumare (who plays for Mali) and Gonzalo Segares (Costa Rica) are now also unavailable to coach Denis Hamlett due to international obligations.
Houston, undefeated in their last seven, will be looking to keep their good form going against the Fire, though they will be missing key players due to international duty themselves. Midfielder Ricardo Clark and Forward Brian Ching are with the U.S. team and will be unable to go against the Fire.
Here are a few questions I have that will play a role in deciding Friday's game.
Will Wilman Conde play?
Wilman Conde, the Fire's big center back, missed the game against FC Dallas with a shoulder injury and is listed as doubtful against Houston. Conde did not practice with the Fire earlier today, and Denis Hamlett wasn't giving up anything about his status, leading me to believe that Conde will miss Friday's match.
Will the Fire be able to defend Houston's set pieces?
Houston has scored five of their last six goals off of set pieces, and the Fire haven't exactly been great at defending them lately, giving up all three of their goals against FC Dallas in free kick/corner kick situations.
"With Houston it starts with set pieces," said Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett. "You have to make sure you do a good job of not conceding silly fouls, silly throw-ins and silly corner kicks because they can punish you."
The Fire did work pretty extensively on set piece defense in Thursday's practice, so hopefully the players will take the lessons learned into the match and not give the opposing players free headers at goal.
Which team has the better depth?
With each team missing key players due to international duty, roster depth will play a huge role in deciding the match. "This is the time that we need to start showing our depth," said Fire forward Brian McBride. "It's been one of our strong points... we've got a group of guys that can really as a whole make a difference."
Looking at how the Fire's practice played out on Thursday, I expect C.J. Brown, Dasan Robinson, and Brandon Prideaux to fill in for Soumare, Segares, and the injured Conde in the Fire defense. Also, it looks like Marco Pappa will be replacing Justin Mapp in the starting lineup, as the young Guatemalan will get his turn at trying to fill Blanco's shoes.
I see Friday's match being a difficult one for the Fire. They need to step up their form if they want a victory against the streaking Dynamo, but I don't quite see it happening. I'm thinking that the two sides will play to a 1-1 draw at Toyota Park, with goals coming from Marco Pappa and Kei Kamara.