CHESTER, Pa. – The players realize what’s at stake. So does the technical staff. And the passionate fan base.
After months of training and playing, the season comes down to one match for the Union.
Win by two goals and advance. Win by at least one goal and force a pair of 15-minute overtimes and maybe even penalty kicks.
It’s time to leave everything on the field.
"I think we are actually carrying a lot of positives into this next game," said defender Danny Califf. "We're fit for the most part and now we know what to expect. If you look at [Sunday's first leg], we created tons of chances in the second half. We could have tied it up certainly, if not gotten ahead. All we have to do is go there, score, and then the game is on level terms."
Philadelphia fell 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last Sunday at PPL Park. But there is new life with the aggregate goal system and these two clubs will battle once again Thursday night at Houston’s Robertson Stadium (8:30 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).
Hackworth said the Union’s training session on Tuesday inspired confidence.
“We had a good training session that was lively and spirited,” Hackworth said. “There are a lot of smiles. Coming out of Sunday’s game, we were all disappointed we didn’t get the result we needed but we actually feel pretty confident that we have a good chance in this series.”
The Union aren’t exactly sure what their lineup will look like.
It’s possible that Veljko Paunović could return from a right hamstring strain. The 34-year-old forward scored three goals and added three assists in 17 appearances.
“Right now, we’re very hopeful he’ll be ready to go,” Hackworth said.
The technical staff's other personnel consideration is balancing the merits of putting out an attack-minded lineup while still limiting Houston's biggest strength.
"Houston scores over 40 percent of its goals on restarts and there is a big size advantage if Roger [Torres], Freddy [Adu] or even Jack [McInerney] is in there," Hackworth said. "You are losing some serious battles."
No matter what the lineup looks like, the Union believe they can win. That belief began in preseason training and has carried through the season.
“If we play the way I know we can play, we can beat anyone," said 40-year-old goalkeeper and captain Faryd Mondragon. "And I say this in a very humble way because I know there are a lot very good teams. But I live with this team every day, day by day, training by training, minute by minute, and I know what we are capable of.”
While Houston finished with a 10-3-4 home record and the Union finished with a 4-7-6 road mark, Philadelphia are downplaying their disadvantage.
“Sometimes I think when you’re on the road and your whole focus is the game, there is a positive to that,” said Hackworth. “From team meetings to meals, you’re together the whole time and a lot of talk that goes on. This game in particular, we know what we have to do and there is a lot on the line. We want to continue the season so we’re going to put everything we have into it.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, seven teams have advanced after losing a first leg in the 16-year-history of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The Union are hoping that number soon jumps to eight.