Fire play host to Earthquakes in ‘must-win’ game

Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic refused to shy away when asked about the importance of his team’s match against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.

“This is a must-win game,” Paunovic said to the team’s official website. “We believe absolutely that we have a great opportunity in front of us to get back on a winning streak again.”

Now, it’s up to Chicago (4-7-2) to show the same urgency on the field against San Jose (2-7-3).

The Fire will look to reverse a recent slump after dropping three of their past four games to fall farther out of contention in the Eastern Conference. Plenty of time remains for a turnaround, but Chicago needs more bite on offense after managing only five goals in the past four matches.

Chicago is 2-4-1 at home and San Jose is 1-4-2 on the road.

“We need to get three points here at home and start making this a really tough place to play,” Fire defender Kevin Ellis said to the team’s official website. “I’m looking forward to getting that started on Saturday.”

Naturally, San Jose has other ideas.

The Earthquakes have dropped back-to-back games, including a 3-1 defeat to D.C. United and a 1-0 loss to the L.A. Galaxy. The club is searching for its first win since May 12 against Minnesota United.

San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski said he and his teammates could stop the skid by focusing better.

“It’s tough because we play well at times and string together a couple of passes, but then we have a self-inflicting wound and the next thing we’re digging ourselves out of a hole and chasing the game,” Wondolowski told the team’s official website.

“We need to take it more personally. We need to take it step by step, do the simple things right and do them better than we have been because we’ve been trying to do too much and costing ourselves.”

The Fire are led in scoring by forward Nemanja Nikolic, who has six goals but has cooled off after a fast start. Midfielder Aleksandar Katai and forward Alan Gordon are next with three goals apiece, and Ellis ranks fourth with two goals.

Chicago midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger has proved to be the team’s top playmaker this season. The former European sensation leads the club with five assists to go along with one goal.

Fire goalkeeper Richard Sanchez has made 34 saves and posted two shutouts.

On the other side, the Earthquake are led by forward Danny Hoesen with six goals. Midfielder Magnus Eriksson has three goals, and three players have two goals apiece — Wondolowski and midfielders Florian Jungwirth and Vako. Eriksson and Vako are tied for the team lead with three assists.

San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell has made 38 saves but has yet to post a shutout.

This marks the only meeting during the regular season between the teams. The Fire won the most recent match 4-1 on Sept. 27 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.