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Playoff preview: Union v Dynamo

(Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

What: Philadelphia Union v Houston Dynamo

When: 5pm EST

Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA

Why: Playoffs!

TV: ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN-Deportes

Radio: Soon

Referee: Jair Marrufo (if you are close to the field, throw him a shirt)

For additional info, see PSP’s Lineup Breakdowns: The goaliesUnion D vs Dynamo OMidfield vs MidfieldUnion O vs Dynamo D

In March, two teams with modest expectations met in Houston to work out the offseason kinks. The Dynamo were already suffering from the injury bug and their goalkeeper was largely untested. The Union boasted a big, new goalie, a big name striker, and a defense with plenty to prove. It was an ugly mess of a game. Neither team looked confident or threatening. In bars across Philadelphia, fans turned to each other, shrugged, and said, “At least we got a shutout!”


33 games later, the two teams who slogged it out in the opener have found their identities and collected enough points to end up second and third in the Eastern Conference.

The Union used their opening night performance to lay down a marker for the rest of the league: You might have bigger names and more possession, but it will take something special to score on us this season. In fact, it took something special to even get a shot off against the Union in the first half of the season.

Options up top

The Philadelphia side that strides onto the pitch Sunday night has added a dangerous counterattacking element to their defensive solidity. Unfortunately, that threat has come almost exclusively from Sebastien Le Toux. And usually with Paunovic beside (or behind) him. Veljko Paunovic is listed as questionable for this weekend, and if he can’t go the Union must replace him with more than the standing-around-wondering-where-Paunovic-is offense they used against New York.

The options are:

1) Danny Mwanga – Using Mwanga as a second striker would hearken back to the days of 2010 when Danny and Seba developed into one of the more feared striking combinations in MLS. The top two scorers in Union history have seen very little time together in 2011, and when they have been partnered, they haven’t produced. It makes intuitive sense to put the best two strikers on the pitch. Will it finally work?

2) Freddy Adu – This would make the formation a 4-5-1. Adu can sit in front of the midfield and work with Justin Mapp (also listed as questionable) to transition into the attack. While this theory works on paper, Adu’s run outs with the Union have been like seasons of the tv show Lost: Each one makes less sense than the last. Can Freddy finally find his Gold Cup form on the playoff stage?

3) Jack McInerney/Zach Pfeffer – Sadly, I’d expect the Pfeffer scenario to be the more likely of these two, but don’t put your money on either one. Pfeffer’s confidence took a hit from the Red Bulls and McInerney only gets a start when the moon is full, three crows land on the fifth fence post, and the elvish sword glows Union blue. McInerney’s movement and ability to drop into space in front of the back four could cause major problems for a Dynamo defense that relies on exquisite organization but has played less than 10 games together.

4) Keon Daniel – Just kidding. But wouldn’t it be dramatic?

Marfan’s moment

Whatever the personnel, the Union offense will be quick strike in nature. Ashe and Cameron have license to roam out of the back, so catching them out is a real possibility. Michael Farfan’s performance will be key if Philadelphia want to take a lead into the second leg. Marfan has been the most consistently creative player in blue and gold, and his only competitor for that title (RoTo) is hardly assured of a starting spot.

Houston will play conservatively at first, looking to weather an early onslaught. Once things open up, the Dynamo midfield will move the ball quickly and try to find space on the wings. The best way for the Union to defend is aggressively both on the ball and off.  If the central midfielders are given time, they are a patient pair who rarely force things. They will wait for the wingbacks to join and seek to free up Danny Cruz or Brad Davis on the wings for crosses.

The Union are in trouble if Brian Carroll is getting sucked wide. A strong defensive performance depends on BC’s presence in the center of the park, where he can help clear crosses and cut off direct service to the strikers, who are strong with their backs to goal. To prevent Carroll from drifting, the wide midfielders must track back and cover if Houston’s defenders move forward.

Dynamo design

Houston’s 4-4-2 is a very flat three lines. If the Union stick with their diamond midfield, they must keep it a tight diamond. Pressure on Moffat and Camargo in the center will force the ball wide before Houston can set up their offense. This makes life much easier on the central defenders who will be dealing with two strikers in the box instead of the 4-5 players who arrive for a cross when the Dynamo have time to build.

Both teams have clear strengths and weaknesses. That said, if Union fans need something to worry about, it is that the Dynamo appear to be fixing their weaknesses at the same time one of the Union’s greatest strengths has appeared fallible.

The Houston defense is nothing to write home about. For most of the season, it wasn’t even worth tweeting about. Goalkeeper Tally Hall has been excellent, but – as is often the case with excellent goalies – spotlighting him is a double-edged sword. Hall had to be good because his back four wasn’t. But after giving up three to Kansas City in early September, the Dynamo added Geoff Cameron to their back line and have gone on a strong run. That said, Houston has only faced one in-form striker during that time (Columbus’s Mendoza) and he scored two goals (both PKs).

The strength of the Union has always been their back four. And the strength of that strength has been their ability to own the box. Seeing Dane Richards rise unopposed to put New York into the playoffs was a punch in the face, and rest assured that if a Dynamo striker ends up in the same position, he won’t need Faryd Mondragon’s head to finish things off. Taking back their 18-yard box is priority number one for the Union on Sunday.

It’s finally that time. Playoffs. PSP sees the Union winning the first leg 2-0. What do you think?

Starting Lineups


The Dragon, Sheanomenon, El Kaiser, Bearfight, Garfan, Linguine, RoTo, Aduit, Marfan, Mwagic, Le Touch


Tally Hall, Alain Hainault, Bobby Boswell, Geoff Cameron, Corey Ashe, Brad Davis, Luiz Camargo, Adam Moffat, Danny Cruz, Calen Carr, Brian Ching



Jack McInerney, Jack McInerney, Jack McInerney


Carlo Costly, Will Bruin, Jermaine Taylor



OUT: Thorne Holder (head), Levi Houapeu (ankle), QUESTIONABLE: Veljko Paunovic (hamstring), Justin Mapp (quad), PROBABLE: Tait (ankle)


OUT: Weaver (hip)


  • Nowak on Pauno’s injury: “I’m not a doctor; I’m trying to find out what’s going to be the best recipe for [his return].” Recipe? Maaaaybe he’s a witch doctor? Fitting for a Halloween’s eve game.
  • Mwanga on his health: “I think at this point, I’m back at 100 percent. I think I got my speed back,”
  • Six Union players have playoff experience: Danny Califf, Brian Carroll, Justin Mapp, Freddy Adu, Stefani Miglioranzi and Seba Le Toux. They have five MLS Cups between them.
  • Houston is 4-0-2 in their last six games (not coincidentally the 6 that Luiz Camargo has started and have featured Geoff Cameron in the back)
  • In their two meetings this season, Houston outshot Philadelphia 35-15. But the Union have 8 shots on goal to the Dynamo’s 5.
  • Justin Mapp and Michael Farfan will be at Harrah’s after the game.
  • The Union are the youngest team in the playoffs (a full .02 years younger than Dallas)
  • Stefani Miglioranzi, Rob Vartughian  and John Hackworth are growing moustaches for Movember.


One Comment

  1. I see a 1-1 draw. Le Toux and Ching on a header off a Davis cross.

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