Chicago Fire celebration - September 17, 2011
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What Chicago have to do to overcome tough schedule

The Chicago Fire took a huge step toward the playoffs on Wednesday night, manhandling 10-man Real Salt Lake, 3-0, at Rio Tinto Stadium to climb into 13th place, just three points behind New York for the 10th and final playoff spot.

Depending on the outcome of 11th-place D.C. United’s game against the Philadelphia on Thursday night (8 pm ET; ESPN2, live CHAT), Chicago could find themselves farther away from a playoff berth, but the Fire aren’t worried about that at the moment. After having won five of their last six matches, they’re just worried keeping their momentum going.

“The most important thing is that the team got three points,” Marco Pappa, who scored all three of the Fire’s goals, told by phone Wednesday night. “Now we’re looking forward to [trying to get in] the playoffs.”

If the Fire are to sneak into the playoffs, they’ll have to overcome a relatively difficult schedule. Here’s a quick look at Chicago’s four remaining league games:

Oct. 1 – at Houston

Chicago have a pair of quick turnarounds coming up, taking on the Houston Dynamo in the Texas heat on Saturday before immediately travelling to Seattle for Tuesday’s US Open Cup final against the Sounders.

Tuesday’s match won’t directly impact the Fire’s playoff hopes, but it will likely affect their lineup for their game against the second-place Dynamo. Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas told earlier this week that he’ll likely rest some starters against Houston, a tricky proposition given the Fire’s current spot in the standings.

Regardless of who plays on Saturday, Chicago will need to a do a job on Dynamo midfielder and MVP candidate Brad Davis, who registered an assist in the teams’ 1-1 tie on April 23.

Oct. 12 – FC Dallas

After Tuesday’s final, the Fire won’t play again until an Oct. 12 home match against FC Dallas.

Chicago and Dallas met in the season opener, with Fire forward Diego Chaves scoring and Dallas winger Brek Shea – who played center back in that match – getting shown a straight red in a 1-1 draw at Pizza Hut Park. The Fire probably won’t have the luxury of facing a Shea-less FCD this time around, and they’ll need to do a good job of slowing down the speedy MVP candidate if they’re to take what they hope will be an important three points from their Brimstone Cup rivals.

Oct. 15 – at D.C. United

Chicago won’t have long to rest after the Dallas match – they have to travel to D.C. to take on United at RFK Stadium a mere three days later. This match could determine whether or not the Fire make the playoffs, as D.C. are currently two points ahead of Chicago with two games in hand.

It will also be the third time in as many league matches that Chicago face an MVP candidate, this time in Dwayne De Rosario. They’ll need to limit his impact if they want to get the result against their longtime Eastern Conference rival.

Oct. 22 – Columbus

Chicago finish the regular season with a home date against familiar foe Columbus. This match could have playoff implications for both teams, as the struggling Crew are just three points ahead of 11th-place D.C. with only three games left on their schedule.

The Fire won the sides’ previous meeting, getting a late goal from forward Cristian Nazarit to defeat Columbus 1-0 on June 12. If they want a repeat performance, Chicago will have to stop both speedy winger Robbie Rogers and streaky striker Andrés Mendoza if they’re to get maximum points from their final match of the regular year.  

Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for E-mail him at