In previous seasons, the good typically outweighed the bad when Chicago Fire defender Wilman Conde unleashed his aggressive play on the pitch.
This year, however, is a different story. Whenever Conde makes a mistake or a bad decision, or if he simply is the recipient of the opposing team initiating contact or diving, the end result has been game-changing in the opponents' favor.
That was the case again Saturday during the Fire's 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Conde was issued a pair of yellow cards -- the second resulting in an RSL penalty-kick goal by Alvaro Saborio in first-half stoppage time.
The Fire (6-9-8) are winless in six straight matches (0-4-2 during their current stretch), while Salt Lake (13-4-8) set an MLS record by extending its home unbeaten streak to 23 games. Conde is forced to miss the Fire's next match against Seattle Sounders FC next Saturday at Toyota Park.
Chicago's playoff hopes continue to dwindle with only seven regular-season matches remaining.
"All it takes is for one team above us to screw up and for us to start winning some games," Fire defender C.J. Brown said. "All we have to do is squeak into the playoffs. For me, and a lot of the guys, we are still going to battle. Every game for us has a playoff mentality."
Normally Conde's tenacious moments have been exploited this season. But against Salt Lake it was one of his softest defensive attempts that resulted in a penalty kick.
Already sitting on a yellow card, Conde and RSL's Ned Grabavoy chased down the ball in the box in the 44th minute and Conde briefly grabbed the left arm of Grabavoy. That prompted referee Jorge Gonzalez to issue a second yellow to Conde. Originally Gonzalez issued the yellow to Brown, but during several minutes of confusion, he properly issued it to Conde.
During Saborio's penalty kick attempt, Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson guessed correctly to his right and dove at the ball. But Saborio's low strike went past Johnson for a 1-0 lead that held up the rest of the way.
Conde's first yellow card came in the 30th minute when he fouled Saborio from behind. On at least a couple of occasions between Conde's yellows, RSL's players took a tumble during some weak one-on-one contact against the Fire defender.
Clearly playing a man down had a negative effect on the Fire's attack, though Chicago was not doing much on the offensive end before Conde's departure. The Fire did not put a single shot on goal, while Salt Lake had five shots on goal. Salt Lake also had a dominant 17-5 advantage in shots.
The Fire's offensive chances were slim at best. Shortly into the 22nd minute, Collins John took a deep strike that skimmed the top of the crossbar. RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando screamed at his defense for appearing to back off and give John plenty of space to strike the ball.
Salt Lake had more than a few opportunities to pad its lead in the second half. One of the most visible chances was in the 83rd minute when Andy Williams passed the ball across the goal box and had two RSL players near the path of the low cross -- Pablo Campos in line with the center of the goal and Paulo Araujo Jr. converging at the far left post.
RSL also should have done better on a 24th-minute opportunity where Robbie Findley was one-on-one against Johnson. Conde missed the ball sent by Grabavoy, and that allowed Findley a chance head-to-head against the Fire's rookie goalkeeper. But in Findley's attempt to direct the ball over Johnson, he also shot it well over the crossbar.
Analysis: Following Conde's ejection, the second half of Saturday's match felt like two teams going through the motions at times. RSL wanted to hang onto its lead while Chicago tried to minimize the damage defensively.
Seven regular-season matches remain, the postseason looks bleak with every passing week, and the Fire still have to question how to best utilize their personnel.
Freddie Ljungberg was a non-factor as head coach Carlos de los Cobos dropped him deep into the midfield. Ljungberg was taken out of the match in the 60th minute. Nery Castillo and John put little pressure on Rimando and the RSL defensive line. Midfielder Marco Pappa played for most of the match, but he looked rusty with some off-the-mark crosses and a 5th-minute shot attempt within the top of the box that was dreadfully wide left.
Johnson looked great in goal once again, coming up with four saves. It is unfortunate that he continually is thrown the task of warding off goals outside of the run of play.
Recently-signed Bratislav Ristic made his Fire debut with the start at right midfield, and he moved well on the pitch. You can tell by his mannerisms that he has been training with his Fire teammates for a while. With the ejection of Conde, Ristic dropped more toward right defensive back in the second half, with Brown and Dasan Robinson patrolling at center back.