John Hackworth concedes that the Philadelphia Union are out of the playoff race

In the minutes after the Philadelphia Union gave up a last-minute 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew at PPL Park, the atmosphere at one of Major League Soccer's most lively venues was pin-drop quiet.

The fans who made the midweek trip to Chester knew how important the defeat was. So did Union manager John Hackworth. When asked during his postgame press conference whether the Union are out of the playoff race, Hackworth did not mince words.

"I'm the eternal optimist, but I would say that I'm not stupid either," Hackworth said. "I don't think it's a possibility anymore. I think we should stop talking about it, personally, and I think we should concentrate on playing good soccer the rest of the way."

So what happens now? The Union are 16 points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 10 games to go. Motivating his players will be biggest challenge yet of Hackworth's time in charge of the team.

I asked Hackworth how he plans to do that - and whether, as part of that, there are players who are playing to remain on the Union's roster next season.

Hackworth demurred.

"I am emotional about losing a game that you feel like you shouldn't lose, so I'll try to give my best answers to you guys," he told the reporters assembled before him. "But at the same time, I want to be very smart and very thoughtful about some of the things I say going forward. So I don't think now is the time for me to talk about what we're doing going forward."

Hackworth said he's "happy with the kind of soccer we're playing," though he admitted that "obviously we're not executing in front of both boxes."

"That is our Achilles heel right now," Hackworth continued. "But I would tell you that I think we're going to try to continue to push and play the same style of soccer, give it everything we have, and I think it's going to fall [into place] sometime soon."

Hovering over all of this is the fact that Hackworth is only the Union's manager on an interim basis. So his job is as in jeopardy at the end of the year as those of his players.

I asked Hackworth what he feels he has at stake personally as the season concludes.

"That's a tough question - you'll have to ask our ownership that," he answered. "I'm going to do the job to the best of my ability, and I'm going to keep pushing our guys."

This much was clear on the night: the Union fundamentally lack a finishing presence up front. Jack McInerney had a poor game, turning the ball over multiple times and failing on a few occasions to link up well with his teammates. Antoine Hoppenot played better, but lacks the traits necessary to really lead the Union's offense.

In the locker room after the game, McInerney told me something quite profound about his role in the Union's front line.

"It's tough playing up there because we play a 4-3-3, but the wide guys tuck back," he said. "I'm not the biggest guy, so I can't really play as that target striker. I just need players to make runs off of me, and create stuff for me too."

I'm not the biggest guy, so I can't really play as that target striker.

There you have it. An admission from McInerney that he's not right for the role he's in.

Columbus, meanwhile, has no such problems - and that's why they're making a dramatic charge up the standings right now.

Federico Higuaín is exactly the kind of forward the Union need - big, fast and powerful, but also skilled and creative. He has three goals and four assists in just four games played since joining the Crew as a Designated Player during the summer transfer window.

Even Crew manager Robert Warzycha has been surprised by how well Higuaín has played.

When I asked Warzycha whether he expected what he has gotten from the Argentine, he answered succinctly: "Absolutely not."

"You wish that a player that you bring to the team from a different country - who doesn't speak English - can adapt quick and score goals and have assists," Warzycha said. "But [to do it] that quick is something."

Higuaín also serves a terrific free kick, as the Union learned firsthand - and that's another thing that the Union struggle with, especially when Freddy Adu isn't on the field.

As painful as it was to watch the Union give up that late goal, the contrast between them and the Crew was clear well before then. Whether or not the Union deserved to win, it's worth it to take something from the first 90 minutes of the game as well as the last five.

Here's more analysis of the night in video form, as Marc Narducci of the Inquirer chats with Kerith Gabriel of the Daily News

After you watch the video, I hope you'll have your say in the comments about where the Union go from here. What do you want to see over the course of the rest of the season? Which players do you think are playing for their jobs now? Do you think Hackworth is under pressure to deliver too? Fire away below.