LOOKING AT IT in retrospect, if John Hackworth hands weren't tied, it's very likely Bakary Soumaré would still be awaiting his Union debut with the first team.

Soumaré looked less than ready for the 90 minutes he played in Sunday's 3-1 loss to Chicago, his former team. But with All-Star captain Carlos Valdés away on international duty with the Colombian national team in Spain, viable options at center defense were slim.

"I don't know that answer entirely," Hackworth said during his weekly news conference Wednesday. "The thought [going into the match] was that we wanted to give Baky a start. But in getting Baky a start, we feel like he still has to earn it. He's got to be better than the guys that are playing in front of him currently, and both Carlos and Amobi [Okugo] are playing very good."

Soumaré described his play as "rusty," which was a given, considering the 26-year-old Malian international is coming off extensive rehab for a knee meniscus injury. In a season in which mistakes must be lessened if there is a sliver of hope for the Union to make a second trip to the postseason, playing Soumaré was one of them. Perhaps the biggest moment was getting beat at the end line by Fire forward Sherjill McDonald, who provided the assist on Chicago's equalizer in the 43rd minute.

But what really were the options?

Veteran defender Chris Albright has been hampered by injuries that some think still diminish his playing time. Porfirio Lopez has amounted to a practice player, and Okugo, the only true hybrid at the position, is having his best season as a pro at the wrong position. With Soumaré, it's long term for Hackworth. He thinks Soumaré is the answer at center back with Valdés.

Even if it's not evident yet.

"Look, the thought here is that Baky is going to be one of our most important players, and that will ultimately mean that we will have to move Amobi back to the midfield," Hackworth continued. "It's interesting, because you have all these thoughts and plans as a coach and a staff, but then you always have situations like you had last game, where players aren't available or injured . . . That opens up opportunities for other guys. I am happy Baky got out there, but, at the same time, if we are going for a first-choice team, it's Carlos and Amobi at center back."

Valdés, Keon Daniel (Trindad & Tobago) and Gabriel Gómez (Panama) return to the club Friday, after a series of friendlies in Europe, and, barring injury, should be available for Sunday's match against D.C. United. Gómez, Panama's captain, picked up a red card in his country's 2-0 loss to Portugal.

Playoff mindset

While the Union isn't mathematically out of contention for the fifth and final playoff spot in the East, losses like Sunday's start to dim the picture. The Union (7-12-2, 23 points) is 13 points behind D.C. United for the last spot.

Positives - and they are few - include the fact the Union plays six of its final 13 at home. Additionally, it holds at least two games in hand over all the teams above it in the East except D.C., over which it has one game in hand.

Such things restore Hackworth's faith that his young team can still make a run at it.

"I'm not not thinking about the playoffs," said Hackworth, who joked later about his double-negative comment.

"Right now, I still want to compete with that idea in mind. If we go down and get three points at D.C. United, we are right back in the playoff race, depending on what some other teams do. I said this a couple weeks ago, that when we didn't gain points, our other competitors didn't gain points, either.

"This year in the Eastern Conference, it's a dogfight and a lot of that we can't control, because of where we are. The only thing we can really do is try to get three points at D.C. and see where that puts us."

Contact Kerith Gabriel at gabrielk@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @sprtswtr.