"Nothing sweeter" for Union than playing spoiler vs. DC

CHESTER, Pa. – Due to a seven-game winless streak dating back to the start of August, the Philadelphia Union are close to being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

And while that will certainly be a bitter pill to swallow when it happens, one thing will make it a little bit easier to handle – if D.C. United join them on the outside looking in.

Make no mistake, the Union will be thinking about that when they face United on Thursday at PPL Park (8 pm ET, ESPN2; LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com) hoping to put a dent in their rival’s playoff hopes.

“Nothing,” Union manager John Hackworth said, “could be sweeter.”

PREVIEW: Union host DC with playoff hopes in the balance

A loss would certainly be detrimental for D.C., who currently sit one point behind Columbus for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with a game in hand.

And while Hackworth said he’ll probably use the playoff implications to motivate his players, he also noted there are plenty of other reasons for his players to get excited about Thursday’s nationally televised game, even if they are basically out of the playoff hunt themselves.

“Honestly, if I need to motivate anyone in that locker room, something’s wrong,” the Union manager said. “This is a rivalry game. This is a game we’ve already had all this tension back and forth. We’ve already had three games this year where the cards were flying, the tackles were flying and emotions were running high. So I hope I don’t have to do too much motivation tomorrow.”

To say emotions were running high the last time these two teams met is probably an understatement. In the final minutes of that Aug. 19 game at RFK Stadium, there were three red cards, a scrum and many heated words.

In all, there have been 11 yellow cards and five reds shown in the three matchups between the two teams this season. Based on that laundry list of offenses, Thursday’s game could be just as fiery.

“I think it’s a classic derby game in that you have two teams close in proximity to each other and there’s a lot of animosity between the players and the fans that you can feel,” Hackworth said. “When you get in the game, there’s a charged atmosphere out there.

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“My personal preference is we use all of that energy to produce good soccer for both teams. But it’s inevitable that neither one of these teams want to lose these games, so it’s always going to be a little bit of a dogfight. And that’s typical of these types of games worldwide.”

And like all good rivalries, the games have gone back and forth this season, with D.C. beating the Union at PPL, the Union beating D.C. in the US Open Cup and the two teams playing to a draw in August’s wild matchup at RFK.

But Hackworth is still thinking about that home loss, which happened to be his first game as manager back in June.

“Playing the last game of the series of the season, at home, we owe them one from the last time they were here,” the Union manager said. “ … We have to protect this ground. We have to treat it very special. Our fans deserve it.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.