It could be the last stand for the Chicago Fire, who look to put themselves back in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the East on Saturday night when they host the conference-leading Philadelphia Union.
Chicago (7-9-11) enters weekend play 10th in the East, three points behind Montreal, Toronto FC and Orlando City – all of whom are on 33 points. The Fire, though, have played a league-high 27 matches, which makes getting at least one point – if not all three – vital to avoid missing the postseason for the eighth time in 10 years.
They are also facing a tough turnaround after a 3-2 loss at Portland on Wednesday in which they played the final hour with 10 men after Aleksandar Katai was shown a straight red card after a video review for swinging his right elbow at Portland’s Julio Cascante. Nemanja Nikolic and C.J. Sapong scored second-half goals for Chicago, which played with a largely overturned side as coach Veljko Paunovic made six changes from the first XI that helped the Fire win 3-2 over the Impact last weekend.
Regulars Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty sat out the match, while recently acquired midfielder Michael Azira made his Fire debut and played the full 90 minutes.
“We didn’t have as good start, definitely,” Paunovic told ProSoccer USA. “We conceded two goals too early and too innocently, but I think we fought back, the reaction was good. And after the other setback, after the red card, the second half we definitely fought fantastically, I thought the team spirit was amazing.”
Katai will serve his suspension in this match, leaving a hole in the midfield. Paunovic may also have to make a choice at keeper between David Ousted and Kenneth Kronholm for the No. 1 shirt. Ousted looked shaky at times in his first appearance since mid-May and allowed two goals before Katai got sent off, but also made a string of fine saves in the second half with the Fire down a man.
Philadelphia (13-6-7) is looking for its third straight win and more breathing room atop the conference after a 2-1 victory over Houston on Sunday. Jack Elliott scored the match-winner in the 78th minute for the Union, who are three points better than MLS Cup champion Atlanta – which has a match in hand.
“A lot to work on and a lot to improve, still in first place, but not content,” coach Jim Curtin said at his Wednesday news conference before turning his attention to Chicago, adding, “I’m a believer in expected goals and (they) have created a lot of chances this year and been unlucky. They’re a good team that can break you down, especially on the road.”
The Union have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team on the road of late, routing D.C. United 5-1 last time out – thought the match swung on a red card to D.C. in the first half – after absorbing 4-0 hidings at both Real Salt Lake and Montreal in the previous two contests. Seat Geek Stadium has not been a happy hunting ground for Philadelphia of late as last year’s 4-3 win ended a six-match winless spell (0-2-4) there.
Philadelphia, though, is looking to complete its second straight double over Chicago after recording a 2-0 home win July 20. Marco Fabian and Anthony Fontana scored in each half for the Union, who kept former striker Sapong off the scoresheet after dealing him to the Fire in the offseason.
(Auston Trusty photo courtesy Philadelphia Union official Twitter account)