Chicago hopes to continue surge at Houston

The Chicago Fire are the hottest team in Major League Soccer, but they still have work to do just to make the playoffs.

Chicago won just two of its first 24 matches this season, but has won five of its last six to surge to within three points of the final postseason berth.

After a 3-0 win at Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, the Fire (7-8-15) will try to keep the heat on in the Eastern Conference and the wild-card race against the Houston Dynamo (10-9-12).

Amazingly, Chicago is just eight points out of first place in the East and is just three points behind Red Bull New York for the final wild-card spot.

The Fire have also played less games than three teams ahead of it in the East and with a win at Robertson Stadium against the Dynamo, would cut the deficit on Houston to three points with a game in hand.

Depending on other matches in the East this week, Chicago could close the gap on first-place Sporting Kansas City, which visits the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, to just five points.

Chicago got a break in its recent win, as Kyle Beckerman was sent off after a head butt to Daniel Paladini just 11 minutes into the match against Real, and Marco Pappa followed with a hat trick.

"It gave us a big advantage. They're a team that likes to possess the ball and when you take their pivot player out of the equation, it's going to definitely help us," Chicago's Logan Pause said.

Still, to remain composed at Rio Tinto Stadium and escape with three points, even with a man advantage, was another good sign for the Fire.

"It was a great win against a very good team in a very difficult place. They don't drop a lot of games at home," Chicago interim manager Frank Klopas said. "I was very happy with the performance of the guys, not just that we won, but tactically as well."

Chicago realizes its recent run is still not enough, and Pappa acknowledged it was important to move on and focus on Houston.

"We're talking in the locker with our teammates that each game is a playoff for us right now. We're still alive and we need to get points, and we know the next game is going to be hard in Houston," Pappa said.

The Dynamo actually moved into first place in the East after its last win, 1-0 over FC Dallas, but Sporting Kansas City claimed the top spot Wednesday with a 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew.

With Houston, Sporting and Columbus all on 31 games played, none of the squads can afford to drop points with the top seven teams in the East only separated by eight points.

The Dynamo's road win last week was its first of the season, but home is where Houston has done most of its damage this year as 30 of its 42 points have been earned in Houston.

Houston has just two more games remaining after this weekend, at the expansion Portland Timbers on Oct. 14, and at home against the Los Angeles Galaxy on the final day of the regular season Oct. 23.

But with a win against Chicago, the Dynamo could make the final two games much less important, and enter the last game not needing a win against the top team in MLS.

"We've got three games left now, two home and one away, so maybe it will start some momentum for the rest of the season and into the playoffs," said Houston defender Geoff Cameron, who had the lone goal against Dallas. "That's our main goal is to finish off the season strong, get into the playoffs, and make a run for it."