225 days and 34 games after the Union began their 2011 campaign in Houston, Philadelphia will host the Dynamo Sunday at PPL Park in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Despite falling short of finishing in first place in the Eastern Conference, the Union succeeded in earning a coveted wild card bye as the East's third seed in just the club's second season. Now Philadelphia's 2011 fate has been reduced to a two-leg, home-and-home showdown determined by aggregate goals, essentially one long 180-minute match. The stakes are black and white: win or go home.
Drawing Houston has its positives and negatives. On one hand, the Union are undefeated against the Dynamo all-time with a 2-0-2 record, tied for Philadelphia's best mark against any MLS club (New England Revolution and Chivas USA being the others). On the other hand, Houston head into the playoffs on a six-match unbeaten streak, tied for the longest such streak of any playoff team (Sporting KC being the other). Of course, prior to losing 1-0 in New York, Philadelphia were on an eight-match unbeaten streak of their own, so despite the latest setback it's not as though the Union are limping into the postseason.
The Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup between Philadelphia and Houston will feature two MVP candidates, Sebastien Le Toux and Brad Davis. With a league-leading 16 assists, Davis pulls the strings for a Dynamo attack that hasn't seen a dominant goal scorer emerge. Geoff Cameron, Brian Ching, Will Bruin and Bobby Boswell have netted five times apiece this year, while Davis, Colin Clark and Cam Weaver have each added four goals.
The Union have had success at Robertson Stadium in the past, winning twice in as many tries, but Philadelphia would be wise to avoid relying on a positive result next Thursday in Houston. The Dynamo have enjoyed success this year at home to the tune of a 10-3-4 record. While the Union have only lost once at PPL Park this year, they have been susceptible to dropping points, drawing over 50 percent of their league home games in 2011. Philadelphia's nine home draws tied for most in MLS, while Houston's nine road draws are second in MLS.
Keys to the series
Can the Union defend Brad Davis' service?
If the Union are to emerge victorious at the end of 180 minutes, they'll have to limit Houston's strength: set pieces and crosses. Davis is a master at serving dangerous balls into the opponent's area, which has been the one weakness for Philadelphia's defense. In fact, 15 of the 36 goals the Union have conceded this season have come from crosses, corner kicks and set pieces. The Dynamo have a number of players who excel in the air, including most of their top scorers, so the Union will have to be on high alert to stay close to their marks and prevent easy finishes. Even more effective would be limiting Davis' service, but that's a tall order. In order to do so, the Union will have to avoid commiting fouls in their defensive third and track Davis' whereabouts with the utmost attentiveness. As opponents have discovered all season, both tasks are easier said than done.
Can Philadelphia find a scoring complement to Sebastien Le Toux?
Le Toux has been a one-man wrecking crew over the last two months, but he'll need help bearing the scoring burden if the Union are to make a run deep into the postseason. Danny Mwanga's return to health should help, whether the 20-year-old starts or comes off the bench. It's unclear whether Veljko Paunović will be available due to a right hamstring strain (doubtful on Tuesday's injury report), and no other active player other than Mwanga has scored more than three goals this season. That said, 15 players currently on the roster have found the back of the net at least once. In the short term against Houston, the Union may be able to get by with sound defense and a continuation of Le Toux's hot streak. If the Union hope to celebrate at The Home Depot Center on November 20, however, others will need to step up and supplement Le Toux's production. Ideally that trend begins in the Conference Semifinals.
The bottom line
This is a series between two evenly matched clubs that finished one point apart in the standings. In two regular season meetings this year, the Dynamo outshot the Union 35 to 15, but Philadelphia held an advantage in shots on goal, eight to five. Houston held distinct edges in passing accuracy and time of possession, as well as crosses from open play. But the Union held the most important advantage: on the scoresheet. After winning in Houston to start the season, 1-0, the Union had multiple chances to take a two-goal lead in Philadelphia and put the Dynamo away to complete a season sweep. Instead, Houston hung around and ended up tying the match in the 84th minute through Geoff Cameron.
When a playoff series winner emerges after 180 minutes – or more if the two sides are deadlocked after 90 minutes in Houston – one team will begrudgingly begin their offseason, while the other will be just another 180 minutes away from MLS Cup glory.
2011 regular season head-to-head highlights
All-time comparison and some key stats from 2011:
2011 head-to-head breakdown (Union went 1-0-1):
Comparison charts courtesy of Jonathan Yardley/HoustonDynamo.com/Opta Sports