This article has been corrected. The version that appeared in print editions of Friday's Inquirer had an incorrect name for Major League Soccer.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the Union had one of their best efforts of the season Wednesday - a 3-1 Major League Soccer win over the host Chicago Fire - with one of the franchise's so-called villains in attendance.

Peter Nowak, the scorned former Union team manager, whose bungled transactions before he was fired in June have made him public enemy No. 1 among the dedicated, was honored at halftime as part of the Fire's 15th-anniversary celebration. He was a standout player for Chicago and is still held in high esteem there.

In Philadelphia, it's a different story.

Actually, crediting the presence of Nowak for the Union's win over a Chicago team that is 16-10-5 wouldn't be fair to the winning team. The Union have played better lately. Maybe the team has relaxed with the knowledge that its playoff hopes were almost nonexistent, even though they were still mathematically alive.

The Union have played three strong games against serious playoff contenders. Before Wednesday's win, the Union (9-15-6) were officially eliminated from postseason consideration with a 3-2 loss at Columbus. Even in that game the Union showed some fight, battling back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the score.

And in the game before that, the Union scored a 3-1 win over a talented Houston Dynamo team at PPL Park.

After making the playoffs last season in their second year, this has been a bitterly disappointing campaign. Nowak's moves had a lot to do with it, but in plenty of games the Union just didn't capitalize on scoring chances.

It's too easy to put everything on Nowak's shoulders, although he did his share.

One wonders if the Union had cashed in on makeable scoring chances throughout the season whether they would still be in the playoff picture.

To the credit of team manager John Hackworth and the players, nobody has stopped fighting. Effort hasn't been the problem recently, or throughout the season.

Knowing the culture of the team and the intense competition just to get on the field, nobody should be surprised that the Union haven't thrown in the proverbial towel. Players are competing for their job for next season.

What would send a message is if the Union were able to put together a few wins in a row, something that hasn't happened since July 4 and 8 with victories over Los Angeles and Toronto, respectively.

The Union resume action Saturday against New England at PPL Park, their second-to-last home game. Then, in a quirk of a strange schedule, they are off for two weeks, their second two-week break since Sept. 1.

This season hasn't had a good feel to it, but at least a strong ending in the final four games could give some hope that the road back to MLS respectability may not be as long as originally perceived.