HARRISON, N.J. -- To a man, the Chicago Fire knew that Saturday's showdown on the road against the New York Red Bulls, seemingly invincible at home all season, was going to be a tough challenge in their pursuit to lock up a berth in the upcoming MLS Cup playoffs.
After all, the Fire had just dropped two in a row to Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union. Chicago was now traveling to Red Bull Arena, with its raucous, electric, sing-along crowds, where the Red Bulls had lost just one time throughout the 2011 campaign.
However, thanks to two second-half goals from forward Sherjill MacDonald, the Fire came away with an impressive and vital 2-0 victory Saturday afternoon.
"We knew it was very difficult to play here," Fire coach Frank Klopas said. "It was going to take a fantastic effort."
"We lost twice in a row," veteran Chicago defender Arne Friedrich said, "but usually when that happens, it builds character, especially late in the season. We usually come together."
The victory enabled the Fire to improve to 17-10-5 overall. They have 56 points, leaping over the Red Bulls (15-9-8, 53 points) into second place in the Eastern Conference standings. The win puts Chicago on the doorstep of clinching a berth in the playoffs.
Chicago needs just a loss or a tie by Columbus on Sunday to secure a postseason berth.
It was only the second home loss this season for New York, now 11-2-3 at home. The Red Bulls, who fell to fourth in the Eastern Conference, still do not have their playoff destiny determined. They need a win in one of their final two games against Sporting Kansas City or Philadelphia to earn a spot in the playoffs.
After the two teams battled for 65 scoreless minutes, MacDonald, who came into Saturday's game with only two goals in 12 games this season, broke the deadlock with a brilliant play. He got past two defenders and took a perfect lead pass from Chris Rolfe to get the Fire on the board. MacDonald carried the ball for a good 45 yards before taking the shot.
"I missed a few games early on, but I feel like my stamina is getting better," said MacDonald, who only came back to the Fire lineup in late July after missing most of the season with injuries. "I think it's all been about going back to basics and doing what we do best."
"We knew about his pace and that he could get a lot of the jump on defenders," Klopas said. "He did miss a lot of games earlier, but he had been playing well in the other games. We knew he had the ability to hold the ball through runs. He just had to be smart with the ball, and that made the difference."
MacDonald found the net again in the 79th minute, taking a pass from Daniel Paladini and then sprinting past two defenders to push it past Red Bulls goalie Luis Robles for the second goal of the game.
The Red Bulls had controlled much of the action in the first half but had nothing to show for it. Fire keeper Sean Johnson was credited with just one save to register his fifth shutout of the season.
"We did control possession and had our chances," Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said. "We just didn't take advantage of our chances. It's very frustrating that we didn't score. It's a good feeling that we controlled possession and created about three really good chances. But when you don't take advantage of those chances, you give the other team the chance to score. We picked the wrong team to lose to."
In the 27th minute, Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry had a wide-open shot, but it was pushed aside with a fine sliding play by Friedrich, who used his left leg to deflect the ball.
Dax McCarty had a super chance in the 33rd minute, but his left-footed blast from 25 yards out sailed wide right.
"I hit it clean," McCarty said. "I've been shooting the ball more. It's not something I normally do. I had the chance, and it looked good. I thought it was going to find the bottom quarter of the net."
In the 38th minute, Kenny Cooper had a chance to head home a rebound off an Henry shot, but it trickled wide right. With that, there was no score at intermission.
"It was good that we kept it at zero through the break," MacDonald said. "We knew that the game would open up a little."
The Fire had a good chance in the opening stages of the second half, but Red Bulls defender Markus Holgersson dived to clear away from the box.
"It was a frustrating game, because when we won the ball, we really didn't do much with it," Holgersson said. "We didn't run to the ball. We didn't fight too much. It is what it is. It's a lost game."
Chicago finally snapped the deadlock on a brilliant play from Rolfe to MacDonald, who had just missed a minute prior from 45 yards out with a left-footed shot that Robles dived to stop. This time, Robles was not as fortunate.
Thirteen minutes later, MacDonald's second goal deflated the 21,157 fans in attendance.
The Red Bulls could only get one shot toward the goal in the final 25 minutes, as Cooper's shot off a pass from Tim Cahill traveled like most of the Red Bulls' attempts all game -- wide of the goal.
Needless to say, it was a joyous Chicago locker room after the game.
"We knew it was a big game and knew it was going to be difficult here," Klopas said. "We wanted to defend well because we hadn't had a clean sheet in a while. I'm very pleased with the way the team responded."
It was Chicago's first shutout win since defeating Vancouver 1-0 on July 14.
"We played close together," MacDonald said. "We talked before the game and decided we had to go back to basics and defend well. I got some good passes from Danny and Rolfe and was able to make good plays. It was a very big win because we lost the last two games. We had to get this one."