Having squandered two opportunities to make a push into playoff contention, the road to seventh in the Eastern Conference becomes significantly more challenging for the Chicago Fire on Saturday when they face the table-topping Philadelphia Union.
If the Fire (5-9-8) miss the playoffs for the eighth time in 10 years, they will most likely lament their last two games as Exhibits A and B. Last Saturday, Nico Gaitan missed two penalties that contributed to a home loss against MLS debutants FC Cincinnati, and Chicago was pegged back twice in a 2-2 draw at home versus Columbus - a team that has one victory in its last 16 games - on Wednesday.
The Fire conceded the equalizer in the 90th minute, and after taking one point at home from the two worst teams in the East - their current three-match winless streak began with a road loss to a Sporting KC side currently out of position in the West - Veljko Paunovic is clearly feeling the pressure for his side to produce a result.
And going on the road will do the Fire no favors - they are 0-16-6 outside Chicago in league play since a 2-1 victory at Orlando City on May 26, 2018. Their run of futility began with a 3-1 loss at Philadelphia four days later, and the Fire are creeping closer to the league mark of 25 matches set by New York.
"We know who we are, and what's happening to us," Paunovic told the Chicago Sun-Times after the Fire were booed off the pitch. "We are aware that we have to get better. In those moments when the game is going either way, we have to stay strong."
Djordje Mihailovic and C.J. Sapong provided the goals in each half for Chicago, and Sapong has three goals in his last four matches ahead of his first trip to Philadelphia after being dealt to the Fire in February for $450,000 in allocation money. Sapong had 38 goals in all competitions in four seasons with the Union, highlighted by a 17-goal haul in 2017.
The Union (10-6-6) are three points clear atop the East over MLS Cup champion Atlanta but coming off their worst loss of the season, 4-0 at Real Salt Lake last Saturday. The scoreline is somewhat deceiving since Philadelphia conceded three times in the final 19 minutes and had a goal that would have made it 2-1 chalked off after a VAR review, but Jim Curtin's side also had few answers for a high-pressing RSL club that kept the Union on the back foot.
"We haven't had a bad, flat performance like that all season," Curtin told the team's official website. "So again, certain moments in the year you have to move on to the next game, and, right now, there are no positives to take away from that one and obviously have to look forward to improving during the week. We will obviously watch the film - actually we might burn the film - and move on to next week. And then focus on Chicago."
Philadelphia's defense has not been anywhere near as resilient as it was when making its climb to the top of the East. After a 10-match stretch in which they conceded six goals while going 7-1-2, the Union have failed to record a clean sheet in their last nine games and shipped 20 goals while going 3-3-3.
It was the offense, however, that powered Philadelphia to three wins in as many matches between the clubs last year. Cory Burke had five of the Union's 10 goals, including braces in a road win and a 3-0 U.S. Open Cup victory.
Updated July 18, 2019