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SANDY, Utah (AP) - There is still tons of ground to make up, but the Chicago Fire are not out of the MLS playoff picture yet.
Marco Pappa scored three goals to lift the Fire to a rare road victory with a 3-0 defeat of Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night.
A record setting crowd of 20,762 at Rio Tinto Stadium watched as Pappa brought Chicago (7-8-15) only its second road win of the season. The loss spoiled the return of RSL midfielder Javier Morales, who entered the match as a sub in the 60th minute. It marked the first action for Morales since suffering a gruesome ankle injury in May.
"The most important thing is we needed the points and we got the points," Pappa said.
Things turned sour for Salt Lake (15-9-6) in a matter of a couple minutes early in the first half.
Chicago seized a quick 1-0 lead on a goal from Pappa in the 9th minute. The Fire midfielder volleyed a solid left-footer over the top of the RSL defense and zipped the ball past the shoulder of Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
RSL barely had a chance to regroup from the early goal when team captain Kyle Beckerman was shown a red card and ejected from the match in the 11th minute. Beckerman earned the ejection after committing a brutal foul on Daniel Paladini. He head butted Paladini and will sit out his team's next match against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday potentially longer depending on what action the MLS league office takes.
"It obviously put us in a big advantage," Fire midfielder Logan Pause said. "They're a team that likes to possess the ball. When you take their pivot player out of the equation, it's definitely going to help us. Already being up a goal meant they had to chase the game a little bit and push numbers forward. "
Salt Lake attacked furiously through the remainder of the first half, trying to erase the one-goal advantage. It nearly happened when Alvaro Saborio slipped behind Chicago's backline in the 28th minute and latched onto a through ball fed to him from Andy Williams. Saborio had an open shot, but he sent the ball wide of the left post to keep RSL scoreless.
No other potential goal materialized for Salt Lake before halftime. RSL was held without a shot on goal during the first half. Chicago held them in check by switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation on defense and focusing on possessing the ball.
Pappa struck again in the 36th minute to make it 2-0 for the Fire. Pavel Pardo flicked it ahead to him on the right side of the penalty area and Pappa curled a shot inside the left post.
He finally completed his hat trick in the 75th minute when he put an unassisted goal inside the left post to give the Fire a 3-0 advantage.
"He's a special player and was able to have a special night tonight," Chicago coach Frank Klopas said. "He has that ability one on one to beat players and his finishing was clinical tonight."
A huge win against a quality opponent won't mean much to the Fire if they fail to build on the result. For this team, each game is a mini-playoff since Chicago has no room for error.
"We're thinking in terms of the next game right now," Klopas said. "For us it's unfortunate, but it's almost like every game is a must-win game."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)