By FRANCO PANIZO
The MLS playoff race in the Eastern Conference just became a little more intense, and we can thank the Chicago Fire for that.
Midfielder Marco Pappa snapped a personal three-month scoring drought in dramatic fashion, delivering a hat-trick to help the streaking Fire pulled off a stunning 3-0 victory over 10-man Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday night.
The result not only kept Chicago's seemingly slim hopes of making the postseason alive, but also dealt a crippling blow to RSL's chances of winning the Supporters' Shield.
Pappa and the Fire spoiled Javier Morales' return from the ankle injury he suffered in May by handing the hosts their second straight three-goal defeat. Pappa scored twice in the first half, including on a strike nine minutes in, before completing his hat-trick in the second in front of a record crowd of 20,762 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
If Pappa's early goal wasn't bad enough for Real Salt Lake, Kyle Beckerman's ejection in the 11th minute surely was. The RSL captain was given his marching orders for committing a headbutt on Daniel Paladini, who got his first assist on the season by finding Pappa for the opener.
Real Salt Lake tried to find an equalizer and almost came close on a chance from Alvaro Saborio near the half-hour mark.
But Chicago was able to withstand RSL's pressure and doubled it leads in the 36th minute when Pappa curled a shot into the back of the net following a pass from Pavel Pardo.
Pappa finished off his hat-trick 15 minutes from the final whistle with an unassisted effort that seeled the Fire's second road win of the season.
Winner of five of its past six matches, Chicago now has 36 points on the season, pulling within three of the tenth and final playoff position with four matches left to play. The victory also gives the Fire added momentum heading into next Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup final against the Seattle Sounders.
The loss leaves Real Salt Lake 10 points behind the Los Angeles Galaxy in the race for the Supporters' Shield, and three behind Seattle for second place in the Western Conference. RSL travels to California to take on the Galaxy on Saturday.