By FRANCO PANIZO
CHESTER, Pa. — When Amobi Okugo scored in the 88th minute on Thursday, the Philadelphia Union looked prime to pick up three much-needed points that would severely improve their chances of reaching the postseason.
Then, goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi made a major mistake and Robert Earnshaw made the Union pay.
Earnshaw took advantage of a flubbed Mbolhi clearance in stoppage time and floated a delicate shot over the Algerian to see the Chicago Fire snatch a point in a 1-1 draw against the Union seconds before the final whistle.
Okugo had given Philadelphia the lead at PPL Park just a few minutes prior off a cross from Danny Cruz, but Chicago opportunistically pounced on the late blunder to record an MLS single-season record 17th tie and leave the heartbroken Union in a big hole.
“What happened was a series of mistakes by a lot of different guys,” said Philadelphia interim manager Jim Curtin. “It’s sickening.”
The game’s defining moment came when Vincent Nogueira played a back pass to Maurice Edu in an effort to keep possession. Edu then passed the ball back to Mbolhi, who under no real pressure mis-hit a ball right at Earnshaw.
“We played three passes backwards, and it goes from our free kick to now us picking it up out of our own goal,” said Curtin. “You’re taught at a very young age at the end of games where to play the ball. It should be played forward, and if it goes out of bounds 100 yards from your own goal, that’s fine.
“What happened was a series of mistakes by a lot of different guys.”
While the Union were left to rue that play, they could have put the game away earlier had they found a way to direct more of their 18 shots on frame.
Philadelphia even had an opportunity to find a winner after Earnshaw struck, but Okugo nodded a free kick just wide.
“This is probably the toughest one to swallow in my almost three years at this club,” said Cruz.
The poor finishing from the Union, who had not scored in their last two matches, started almost immediately. Maidana tried to curl a shot to the near post in the first minute, but saw it buzz wide.
Nogueira also had another two looks go wide of the mark in a mostly drab first half void of real scoring opportunities. The French midfielder failed to test Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson on a free kick just before the half-hour mark, and also sent a sizzling shot wide in the 43rd minute.
“Chicago puts a lot of guys behind the ball,” said Curtin. “They do a good job of that. They’re tough to breakdown. That’s the reason they have 17 ties now, so, again, not good enough from us, not good enough from the staff, not good enough from the players.”
Chicago’s defenders were solid in covering for one another, but the attack could not create much with Frank Yallop’s counter-attacking gameplan other than a late first-half header from Sanna Nyassi that Mbolhi dealt with easily.
The Union did a better job of keeping the ball and creating chances, especially in the second half, but they continued to struggle with their accuracy.
Maidana somehow missed the goal on a one-timed effort in the 56th minute after a great set-up by Andrew Wenger, and substitute Brian Brown also scuffed a glorious look inside the penalty area 16 minutes later.
Carlos Valdes also glanced a header wide in the 86th minute before Okugo came through in the clutch in the 88th, pouncing on a ball sent into the area and smashing it home to send the crowd into a frenzy.
Unfortunately for the Union, there was another goal to be had and it was the Fire’s. Earnshaw punished Mbolhi for his 92nd-minute gaffe with a superb lofted finish, delivering a gut-wrenching blow to a Philadelphia team and fanbase that were tasting victory.
“Mistakes happen,” said Mbolhi. “It’s not the first one, it’s not the last one. I know how to handle these kinds of situations. It’s hard for me tonight, but I’ll be fine.”
The result left the Union in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with three matches left in the regular season while the Fire remained in ninth. Philadelphia now will likely need to win out and get some outside help in order to reach the playoffs.
Here are the match highlights: