Back below the red line, Chicago Fire ponder their up-and-down season - and fading playoff hopes

The Chicago Fire were riding their highest high of the season after last week's 3-2 win over New England, which vaulted them into a playoff spot for the first time this season.

In a span of 15 minutes early in Saturday's 3-0 loss to Columbus, during which the Crew took a lead and the Fire went down a man, those joyous feelings washed away.

“To come out and fall behind and lose a man was tough,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz told MLSsoccer.com. “It's difficult. We knew coming in that last week was important, but really it was only one step in the direction of what we want to do.”

The Fire were forced to shift after Dominic Oduro's 15th minute goal put them in a hole and center back Bakary Soumare's 29th minute red card for a last-man foul on Jairo Arrieta put them down a man. Jeff Larentowicz moved to center back for the first time in several years, Mike Magee shifted into the midfield and Alex took on a central role.

Still, the Fire created a few chances, including two shots off the post before goals from Federico Higuain and Bernardo Anor buried them.

“I really thought we did alright to get to half time 1-0,” Larentowicz said. “We were able to regroup, and we knew we were in it. But when that second goal came, it became especially difficult.”

Chicago's topsy-turvy stretch continued, and for the fourth time in five games, they came away with a disappointing result. The Fire are now on the outside of the playoff picture, tied with seventh-place Philadelphia and just one point ahead of eighth-place Columbus.

The Fire's playoff positioning has been fluid these last few weeks, and a win over Montreal next week very well could mean a spot back in the top five. But with five games remaining, chances to lock up a post-season spot are running out.

“You knew last week was great, it was a good feeling to reflect on where we come from, but everybody knows it's far from over, just ask Columbus,” he said. “This is crunch time. This is the time that matters the most, and we have to approach each game that way. The soccer soccer may not always be there, but the things we can control – our attitude, our communication, the way we stick together during tough times – is kind of what gets you through these stretches.”