After a 1-0 loss away vs. the New York Red Bulls on Thursday, the Philadelphia Union received a somewhat unexpected gift on Saturday night from the Chicago Fire. It was the Fire who defeated Columbus 3-2, insuring that the Union would make the playoffs as the second or third place team in the East, instead of as a wild card. Sporting Kansas City's win at DC gave Sporting first place.
Houston's win on Sunday vs. LA put them into second place in the East above Philadelphia, setting up this opening round Eastern Conference Semifinals series. Game one is at PPL Park on Sunday, with game two in Houston on Thursday, November 3. It's a two-leg, total goals series, with both Union games being televised on ESPN2.
The Union had some success this season versus the Dynamo, winning 1-0 opening day on a Danny Califf goal, then playing Houston to a 1-1 draw in the rematch on August 6.
Overall, give Houston a slight edge on offense and the Union a similar slight edge on the defensive side, at least that's what the numbers say.
Where Philadelphia has an edge is in goal, with the veteran Faryd Mondragón more used to the big games than the young Tally Hall, who is in his first year as the club's number one goalkeeper.
Both teams have played pretty well down the stretch with Philly only losing one game out of their last nine and Houston going unbeaten in their last six. Dominic Kinnear's team has gone 7-2-4 since the end of July.
Houston outscored Philadelphia 45-44, yet had no one on their roster scored more than five goals, the lowest total in MLS for a team's top goal scorer. In this case it was top goal scorers – plural – as Geoff Cameron, Bobby Boswell, Will Bruin and Brian Ching all had five. Three others – Brad Davis, Colin Clark and Cam Weaver – each had four, so this team that can score from a number of different places.
Houston's player to watch is MVP candidate Davis, whose 16 assists topped the league. The veteran midfielder has the best left foot in MLS in terms of his passing. Six of his sixteen assists were game-winners. Philadelphia must be wary of Davis in the run of play, but especially on any free kick situation, where he has become lethal.
To advance, the Union must rely on what got them into the playoffs:
- The steadiness in goal, regardless of whether it was Mondragón or rookie Zac MacMath
- The strong play of the back four, especially the two central defenders Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes
- Brian Carroll's midfield presence on both sides of the ball, but first and foremost his defense
- And the all-around play of Sebastien Le Toux, who finished up on a high with 11 goals and nine assists
This should be a very good series, with the Union having a chance to take early control if they can come up big on Sunday at home. Sunday's game won't clinch anything for either team, but both teams will know what they will need to do in that second leg.