Under the magnifying glass: As top 3 hopes fade, Philadelphia Union look to hang on

CHESTER, Pa. – Over the past couple of months, Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth has discussed the playoff race in the context of gaining ground on other teams or moving closer to first place in the crowded Eastern Conference.

But now, ahead of a crucial match on Saturday against the Houston Dynamo (7:30 pm ET; FREE MLS Stream of the Week), Hackworth has a far more desperate tone when talking about the postseason picture.

With Philly winless in its last four games, the Union manager is concerned a loss to Houston would put his team in danger of falling out of playoff contention entirely. At the very least, it would make a top-three finish very unlikely.

“Right now, we’re focused 100 percent on getting a good result on Saturday night and allow ourselves to be in the conversation,” Hackworth said. “If the result doesn’t go our way on Saturday night, it doesn’t mean we’re out but the likelihood is far less that we’ll come back in the remaining five games and get the results we need.”

With many Eastern Conference teams bunched together, most of Philly’s recent games have been magnified. But considering Houston sit two points behind them with a game in hand, Saturday’s game is perhaps the biggest to date.

As it stands now, the Union are battling with Houston, New England and Chicago for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots. Philly has a slight two-point edge but is off next week and closes September with a tough road game against Sporting Kansas City.

“I think three points this Saturday puts us in a position to still be involved in that playoff race,” Hackworth said. “That’s our focus, more so than needing three points to jump into the top three. Right now, things are so tight, we want to focus on the only thing we can control, which is our result against Houston.”

If the Union hope to win their first game since Aug. 10, they’ll need to break out of a serious scoring drought. During their four-game winless streak, they’ve scored just one goal with none coming from strikers Conor Casey or Jack McInerney.

“Obviously I want to score,” Casey said. “I’m a forward. If I don’t score, I’m not happy. That’s standard. But you have to keep some perspective. We’re in the middle of a playoff race and you can’t get too bogged down thinking about that. You’ve just got to continue to keep working and know that you can turn the corner.”

Can that corner be turned Saturday at PPL Park?

“It’s a huge match this weekend for sure,” Casey said. “They’re about in the same position as us. We already lost to them once this year and we’re coming off a loss. So there are no excuses to not win this weekend.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.