The Chicago Fire garnered a signature win when they absolutely needed it. And most importantly for Chicago, the team now finds itself in a realistic position to catch a playoff spot with only four regular-season matches remaining.
The Fire won for the fifth time in their past six matches and were led by midfielder Marco Pappa's hat trick en route to a 3-0 victory against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium in front of 20,762 at Sandy, Utah.
Pappa had been in a significant scoring funk, having failed to find the back of the net since June 26 against the New York Red Bulls.
Now Chicago (7-8-15, 36 points) is within three points of those Red Bulls, who currently hold the final wild card position with 39 points.
"That was great to see," Fire defender Dan Gargan said of Pappa's performance. "He's a player that we need, and when he's sticking the ball into the back of the net, that's phenomenal for us because that's just another weapon that we have. It's been coming. He comes to training every day and puts in extra sessions. He's such a talented player."
Everything went right for the Fire in the first half, and especially in the first 15 minutes. Pappa tallied a ninth-minute goal with his right foot. Then in the 11th minute, Salt Lake captain and midfielder Kyle Beckerman leveled Chicago midfielder Daniel Paladini to the ground and was shown a straight red card.
Defensively, the back line did its job and kept Salt Lake (15-9-6, 51 points) off of the scoreboard as RSL clearly missed having the play of Beckerman in the midfield.
With Pappa zoned in, the Fire were in the driver's seat. In the 36th minute, Pavel Pardo set up Pappa by dribbling past RSL's Yordany Alvarez and passing the ball forward just past Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers. Pappa did the rest with a left-footed strike past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando for a 2-0 lead.
Pappa capped off the night with his third goal in the 75th minute, doing all of the work himself to get past Chris Schuler on the right sideline and then striking the ball inside the far left post for his eighth tally of the season.
The absence of Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, out with a hamstring injury, completely took a back seat. Chicago maintained possession for large portions of the game and did all of the little things right to garner just their second road victory.
"We are on a bit of a roll," Gargan said. "It certainly feels good. I think it's something that we certainly believe in, that we're capable of these results. We want to keep going in that direction."
Salt Lake had its chances, but throughout the first half RSL struggled to put anything on frame. The most significant opportunity came in the 28th minute when Alvaro Saborio got behind the Fire's defense and pushed the ball wide left. Soborio was all alone as Fire defender Josip Mikulic was not on the same page as Fire defender Cory Gibbs and Mikulic decided to push up for an offside call. Saborio was several yards onside.
The only uplifting moment for RSL's 20,000-plus crowd was seeing Salt Lake's Javier Morales make his first appearance since May 7, when he suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle.
Analysis: The Beckerman red unquestionably changed every aspect of the match. But the Fire deserve some props for enduring the moments when RSL was trying draw something in the infraction department.
Gargan's matchup against Fabian Espindola could have gotten out of hand, but Gargan played an intelligent and effective game after both players were shown yellows in the 16th. RSL fans were shouting for a 20th-minute foul in the box on Gibbs, but official Baldomero Toledo was not buying Will Johnson's effort to try and draw a penalty kick. When Chris Wingert fouled Pappa harshly on the sideline in the 33rd and probably deserved a yellow, there was no aftermath or retaliation.
"You don't have to be dirty to be a good player," Gargan said. "I certainly think that they have a couple of them that could have handled themselves better. We had to be smart, to not even up the score, because they certainly were looking to do it and do everything they could to get one of us tossed."
The cooler Fire heads prevailed on Wednesday. The big challenge of course is maintaining this confident and composed play on short rest in Houston this Saturday.