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Nikolić lifts Fire over Union

The ten-man Fire frustrated a wasteful Union side.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Two goals from Nemanja Nikolić were all the Chicago Fire needed to send the Union home empty-handed on Saturday night. The 2017 Golden Boot- winner hit a brace, capitalizing on the few opportunities put in front of him. The Union could barely put the ball on frame in the second frame despite a man advantage and the majority of the possession.

Nikolić opened up the scoring in the 38th minute. The in-form striker—has now scored five goals in his last four games—was rewarded for his near-post run and poked a deflected cross past Andre Blake. Though Przemysław Frankowski hit a great cross that took an even better bounce, Blake may be disappointed to have conceded to his near post.

Aurélien Collin conceded the penalty that led to Chicago’s second goal just before the half. The French center back wrapped up CJ Sapong on a corner kick, and there were hardly any protests when he received a yellow card for the infraction. Nikolić easily converted the penalty, sending Blake the wrong way.

In the final moments of first-half stoppage time, Nicolás Gaitán was sent off for a late tackle on Jamiro Monteiro. The Argentinian midfielder came in from behind and got a lot more ankle than ball, as the referee confirmed via a lengthy video review.

With Chicago down a man for the second half, Jim Curtin threw on Ilsinho for Warren Creavalle at halftime. Andrew Wooten came on for Ray Gaddis 12 minutes later, when the Union began to lay siege to the Chicago goal. 16 of the Union’s 18 shots came in the second half, but only three of them were on target. Two of those came off the boot or noggin of Jack Elliott. Not an encouraging return for a full-strength Union attack.

This was only the third game this year where both Monteiro and Marco Fabián started together. Curiously, Fabián played up top alongside Przybyłko, with Monteiro under those two, and Creavalle behind him. Fabián was isolated, failing to make a single forward pass and rendering the Union attack useless in the first half.

Most of the second half was played in Chicago’s end, where the Union created a handful of clear chances that were largely scuffed wide. The Fire bunkered hard for the last 45 minutes, and they did so perfectly, denying the Union space despite being down a man.

The Union back line had a poor night as well. Aurélien Collin, who has started alongside Jack Elliott for the past three games, has been directly responsible for two of the Union’s four goals conceded during that period. He committed a bad foul against DC and lost his marker on the ensuing free kick against D.C. United, and he gave up the penalty tonight by needlessly pulling down Sapong on a corner. It’s hard to see why the 33-year-old is starting over Auston Trusty this late in the season.

Three brutal home games against D.C. United, Atlanta United, and LAFC now await the Union, whose hold on the Eastern Conference now appears more tenuous than ever.