BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The Chicago Fire are on the ropes in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But they haven’t been knocked out yet, and on Saturday night they kept their hopes alive with a 2-0 win over the first-place Philadelphia Union at SeatGeek Stadium.
“We talked all week about how Chicago’s a desperate team,” said Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin. “The hardest thing to do is try to end a team’s season. And they're professionals.”
That professionalism showed through in how the Fire kept a clean sheet despite playing the entire second half down a man after Nico Gaitan's dismissal in first-half stoppage time for a reckless challenge on Jamiro Monteiro. It was the second time in as many games the Fire had to play at least half the match shorthanded, but Nemanja Nikolic’s two first-half goals proved enough to seal the three points.
Having scored just five goals in the team’s first 21 games of the season, Nikolic now has five in his last four. Saturday’s brace brought him to 50 regular season goals for the Fire, second all time for the club behind Ante Razov’s 76.
While Nikolic is certainly the face of the recent surge, his goals are a product of an entire roster that has elevated its level of play.
“Only if we play together and play as a team will be the time when the individuals stand up,” said Fire coach Veljko Paunovic.
The Fire certainly defended as a team. Although the Union outshot their hosts 18-5, only three of those were on target, and five were blocked.
Afterward, Curtin chalked it up partly to luck.
“It felt like a night where we probably could have played 180 minutes and it wasn’t gonna go in for us,” said Curtin. “We have to bounce back against D.C. quickly [next weekend], because you guys all see how tight the Eastern Conference is.”
The Union hold a three-point lead for a first-round bye over Atlanta United, who play Sunday night in Portland (10 pm ET | FS1, TSN2). Chicago, meanwhile, despite currently sitting 10th are only a point beneath the East playoff line, albeit having played at least one more match than every other team in the conference.
Chicago know they are not in control of their own destiny. All they can do is earn the most points they can over their last six games.
“It’s pretty much do or die,” said midfielder Brandt Bronico. “You’re just doing whatever you can to get the win and I’m super proud of the guys today.”