BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nothing about the Chicago Fire’s season has been easy, but the team won’t go away just yet, even after a second straight first-half red card.
The Fire picked up a crucial 2-0 win against the Philadelphia Union to stay in the playoff race Saturday thanks to two goals from Nemanja Nikolić late in the first half. The Fire held on for dear life in the second half after Nicolás Gaitán was sent off just before halftime.
The playoff picture still isn’t rosy for Chicago, but the team is only one point below the playoff line. Anything but a win would have made the Fire’s playoff outlook bleak, but they’re still in the mix.
“Chicago is a desperate team,” Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin said. “The hardest thing to do is basically try to end a team’s season and they’re professionals. They came out with a lot of intensity”
Nikolić opened the scoring in the 38th minute. Przemysław Frankowski connected with a low cross from the right wing and Nikolić scored with a first-touch finish right in front.
A few minutes before halftime, CJ Sapong was taken down in the box on a corner kick. Nikolić converted the ensuing penalty kick to make it 2-0 with his 11th goal of the year.
The game turned when Gaitán was sent off.
Gaitán whiffed on a ball that led to a turnover. He then tackled Warren Creavalle from behind. The red card decision was upheld following video review.
It was the second straight game the Fire suffered a red card in the first half. In Wednesday’s 3-2 loss at Portland, Aleksandar Katai was sent off for an elbow to the face. Katai served his suspension Saturday. Gaitán will now miss next weekend’s big match at New England.
Sapong hit the underside of the crossbar in the opening minutes of the second half. After that, it was all Union putting pressure on the Fire, but Chicago held on for a third win in four matches.
“We’re at a crucial part of the season,” Fire midfielder Brandt Bronico said. “It’s do or die. You’re just doing whatever you can to get the win.”
Curtin called it a disappointing performance overall for the Union.
Aug 17, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Marco Fabian (10) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Fire at SeatGeek Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
“We conceded some silly goals,” the coach said. “We pushed things in the second half and created some chances, but it felt like a night where we probably could have played 180 minutes and it wasn’t going to go in for us.”
Despite being a point out of the playoffs, the Fire (8-10-9, 33 points) remain in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Every team above them has at least one game in hand. The Fire play just two of their final six games at home.
Fire coach Veljko Paunović said his team is still chasing results after struggling earlier in the season. Next Saturday, the Fire play a New England side two points ahead of the Fire and in sixth in the conference.
“Every game is a final and New England is the biggest final probably that we’re going to have,” Paunović said.
The Union (13-8-6, 45 points) are still in first in the Eastern Conference, but Atlanta can take over first with a win at Portland Sunday.