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As far as excitement goes, it would be tough to top the Philadelphia Union and Houston Dynamo on Sunday at PPL Park. There was a full house on hand and all the tension that goes along with a playoff game, plus goals, balls cleared off the line, pushing and shoving, shots off the crossbar and eventually, a road win. Yup, the Dynamo just barely held on at the end to come away 2-1 winners over the Union and put them right on pace to advance to the Eastern Conference final when they return home for the second leg on Wednesday.
The fun started in the fourth minute when Gabriel Farfan kicked Danny Cruz in the head. For reasons only referee Jair Marrufo knows, Farfan was not sent off. The kick was worth it though because the ensuing free kick saw Brad Davis whip a gorgeous ball onto the head of Adrian Hainault. The big defender just nodded it home and the Dynamo were in front right away.
Even quicker than Houston could score though, Philadelphia had an answer. Michael Farfan threaded a perfect ball through to Sebastien Le Toux, putting the Frenchman in on goal. He finished easily and just 90 seconds after falling behind, the Union were even again.
The Union may have been even again on the scoreboard, but they weren't as good as the Dynamo. The visitors were carrying the play to Philadelphia and it paid off at the half-hour mark when Brian Ching held the ball up before deftly chipping the ball to a streaking Calen Carr. The speed demon was in clear and he knocked the ball home to restore Houston's advantage.
It could have easily been more for the Dynamo, but as dominant as they were in the first half, the Union were that dominant after the hour mark. They brought Jack McInerney, Roger Torres and Freddy Adu on, changing the match. The Union forced the Dynamo to clear a ball off the line, twice just missed the net and McInerney hit the crossbar another time. It was all Union, but they couldn't find an equalizer and were left to wonder what would have happened if they brought their subs in earlier.
Now, Philadelphia will have to go to Houston and get a win. A loss or draw will see their season come to an end and the Dynamo move onto the Eastern Conference final.
The Philadelphia Union were about three inches away from an equalizer, but that pesky crossbar for in the way. In the 87th minute with the Union still down 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo, Freddy Adu found the ball from 20 yards in search of some way to get his team an equalizer. He did it too, lofting an inch-perfect ball to Jack McInerney. The 19-year-old did well, rising up and heading the ball past the outstretched arm of Tally Hall. The ball looked bound for the net as the game-tying goal. It never made it to the net though. Instead it just clanged off the crossbar.
With a second leg awaiting these two teams in Houston, the Union need to get a goal here. To lose the first leg at home makes advancement near impossible and they almost had that goal they needed to avoid losing...then it clanged off the crossbar.
Oh, Carlos Costly. He had the chance to put this match away and blew it. The Houston Dynamo are still holding onto their 2-1 lead over the Philadelphia Union, but it should be 3-1 after Costly found himself alone in front, but managed to put the ball over the bar. Now he can only hope that this one doesn't come back to haunt them.
Will Bruin got free on the left and drove towards the goal. Costly was with him on the right and there was only one Philadelphia Union defender to stop them. Bruin could have had a go at goal, but he was unselfish and played it across the six-yard box to Costly. The cross wasn't hit hard enough and it was a bit behind him so it was hardly perfect from Bruin, but he gave Costly a golden opportunity from five yards to win this match. Instead, Costly hit the ball over the bar and it's still just 2-1.
The Philadelphia Union are out of subs and you can't say they didn't go for goals in the second half. Jack McInerney and Roger Torres had already been brought on and now the Union have used their final sub to put Freddy Adu on the field, a third attacking option to enter this match off of the bench for the home side as they try to come back from a 2-1 deficit.
Philadelphia has done a better job of holding possession and getting chances off of crosses, but that's really ben their only source of chances. With Adu in, they might have another option. The nimble attacker can take guys off the dribble and has good vision so he can slip a ball into a teammate. The Union hope that gives them another way of creating chances because while the crosses have been a way of getting chances, it hasn't been a way of getting a goal yet.
This might be Brian Ching's final season. He used to be an all star every year, got call ups to the U.S. national team and was in the upper echelon of MLS forwards, but that time is gone. Now he's battled injuries and age, just trying to get on the field when he can. He missed chunks of this season, but as we've gotten to the playoffs, he's gotten healthy. He's spoken about how fresh he's felt and in this contest, he looked fresh. He looked like the Brian Ching of old.
The hold up play from Ching was there. He's always ben excellent with that. He was a handful on set pieces too and he even chipped in with a gorgeous pass to Calen Carr for the goal that put the Dynamo up 2-1. Now he's come off as Carlos Costly has been subbed on, but you can't say he didn't do his job. He did a great job and reminded us of what Ching used to look like.
With Costly on, the Dynamo have someone like Ching. They have a guy who will hold the ball up and bully people. With the Union making a surge, they need that because they really just need the ball and to make the Philadelphia defense work some.
The first half of this MLS Cup playoff contest was all Houston Dynamo. They completely dominated and left the Philadelphia Union in their wake. The Dynamo were shortchanged in only being up 2-1 because they deserved more, but that was all they got. The start of the second half was a little bit more even, but ever since the hour mark, this one has been all Union. They've finally got something going and now look like they could actually get a goal or two here.
The first big change was getting some width from Justin Mapp, who was able to find space and cross the ball into the box. It created chances and Danny Mwanga did poorly on one chance not to hit the frame. The next changes were the substitutions of Jack McInerney and Roger Torres. Both added a spark to the midfield and since then it's been all Union. They're just throwing waves at the Dynamo, who are struggling to hold on now.
This match has been screaming out for the Philadelphia Union to make a change. They've gotten nothing in the attack from their central midfielders and have needed to make a change there since the first minute. It took 62 minutes, but we finally have that substitution as Peter Nowak has brought Jack McInerney in for Stefani Miglioranzi. That means McInerney will go up to forward with Danny Mwanga and Sebastien Le Touz will drop into the midfield.
With the Union still down 2-1 at home in the first leg of this two-legged tie, this move needed to happen. They need to get something in the attack and this will do it. This puts a lot of onus on Brian Carroll to be the tackler in the midfield because no one else in that midfield will do it, but Mwanga, McInerney and Le Toux will be a handful going forward. Maybe, just maybe, they can get a goal now.
The Philadelphia Union doesn't have much to complain about thus far. Things haven't gone their way, but almost all of it is their own doing. Hell, they're lucky not to be down a man considering Gabriel Farfan hit Danny Cruz in the head with his boot earlier, but they have a good reason to complain now. That's because it looked like Brad Davis got away with a handball five yards from goal that wouldn't have just been a penalty for the Union, but a card for Davis too.
The handball came off of a free kick that Sebastien Le Toux ripped at the near post. It appeared to hit the outstretched arm of Davis. The crowd certainly thought it was a handball as they moaned and the Union players thought so too, but Jair Marrufo, who has been terrible today, said no. One replay of the incident was shown and it appeared to confirm that it was a handball, but it wasn't the best angle and we never got another look at it.
The Houston Dynamo lead the Philadelphia Union 2-1 as the second half of this MLS Cup playoff game gets underway so it's no surprise they're standing pat with the players they used in the first half. They dominated play so there's no reason for them to make a change. The Union could most certainly use a change though, but for reasons unknown, Peter Nowak has opted not to make a substitution.
Exactly why Nowak has chosen not to make a sub is beyond me. He made a mistake starting the match in the center of midfield with Brian Carroll and Stefani Miglioranzi, two very defensive players. The Dynamo just overran them in the center because Philly had no threat there and they were dropping so deep that there was plenty of space. With Roger Torres, Amobi Okugo and Freddy Adu sitting on the bench, Nowak has the options to make a chance and inject some life in the team, but he's chosen not to. This doesn't look like a smart move by Nowak.
There were questions about what the Houston Dynamo could do in the attack. Brad Davis can only do so much out on the left from the run of play. As good as he can cross the ball, he doesn't have blinding pace and there's not a ton of other options in the midfield for the Dynamo to create chances. One place where they are very dangerous though is on set pieces and that has proved true in the first half of this playoff games against the Philadelphia Union.
Houston already has one goal on a set piece and they almost added another, only to see it cleared off the line. Even the set pieces that don't turn into goals though are being won by the Dynamo. They're going up and winning every ball in the air. That is due partly to a very big Houston team, but the Union could bother with marking guys and getting up to challenge occasionally too.
Right now, you'd have to thing Houston gets another goal on a set piece. They're big, they have Davis whipping the ball in and they have a dreadful Union side trying to defend them.
Someone needs to wake the Philadelphia Union up. They are being smacked around right now by the Houston Dynamo and while they are down 2-1, it doesn't accurately reflect Houston's dominance. The Union have been a mess defending set pieces, but they have also been unorganized in the run of play, incompetent in the midfield and invisible up front. There's just very little good to say about Philadelphia right now.
A lot of the Union's problems can be traced to head coach Peter Nowak's strange decision to play Stefani Miglioranzi and Brian Carroll in the center of the midfield. Both are fine players, but both are defensive minded and when they are in there together, they just have no creativity or attack through the center. Both of them, especially Miglioranzi, are playing so deep that they are just conceding the center of the pitch to the Dynamo.
The Union can't get away with this for much longer. You'd have to think that Roger Torres, Freddy Adu or even Amobdi Okugo has to come in eventually to give them some attack in the center. Even Kyle Nakazawa will do. Someone needs to do it because Carroll and Miglioranzi can't.
This one is all Houston Dynamo and the scoreboard reflects it again. They scored first, tallying in the fifth minute, but the Philadelphia Union leveled less than two minutes later. The whole match has been dominated by the Dynamo though, as they control possession, generate chances and put a real scare into a Union crowd that has packed the house. They were once loud and optimistic, but now they're subdued and scared. For good reason too. Not only did Calen Carr find a second for the Dynamo to put them in front 2-1, but it looks much more likely to go 3-1 than level back up at 2-2.
The goal came thanks to a good play by Brian Ching. The striker held the ball up well, as always, then spotted the blazing fast Carr running in behind the defense. A deft little chip found Carr for the easy finish and Houston were up, 2-0.
Philadelphia looks completely out of sorts right now and will need to change things because this one is all Houston. Someone needs to remind the Union that they're at home and should be the aggressors.
It's sad that this has become such a theme in MLS, especially in the playoffs, but it's hard to ignore the terrible refereeing in the league. On Saturday night it was Mark Geiger who couldn't get anything right when he refereed Salt Lake versus Seattle. On Sunday, it's Jair Marrufo who is having a shocker. This one is already chalked up as an awful match for Marrufo and we're only 25 minutes in.
You knew Marrufo was in trouble after just four minutes. Gabriel Farfan's high boot hit Danny Cruz in the head, but Marrufo somehow decided that wasn't a red card. Later, Stefani Miglioranzi was very late on a dangerous tacke and it was closer to a red card than a yellow. Even so, Marrufo didn't give Miglioranzi an extra talking to after showing the card. Then, he felt card happy so when Cruz went in on a tackle that was a little late, but not too bad, he showed Cruz a card. Not even the Union fans were asking for a card there. Marrufo is in for a loooooong day.
What this match needs is more craziness, right? I mean, so far there's only been two goals, a tackle that should have been a red card, another that could have been a red card and some bad blood between the two teams. That's not enough though so let's add some more to it. How about the Philadelphia Union scrambling to clear a would-be Houston Dynamo goal off of the line? Yeah, now we have that too.
The Union look shockingly poor defending set pieces. They've already given up one goal on a set piece and almost gave up another as the ball was bouncing around the box and was eventually flicked towards goal. That's where it had to be headed off of the line to keep the Dynamo from scoring again.
It's only been 20 minutes, but it's already 1-1 and there's plenty going on. The packed house at PPL Park has been thoroughly entertained so far and this one is just getting going.
So that Houston Dynamo lead lasted all of what? A minute and a half? The scoresheet will show two minutes, but it wasn't even that long. Andre Hainault put the Dynamo in front in the fifth minute, but Sebastien Le Toux answered in the seventh minute for the Philadelphia Union. The result is a 1-1 scoreline and a thrilling start to this playoff game that only figures to get better in the next 83 minutes.
Right after the Dynamo's goal, Michael Farfan got the ball in space on the right. He spotted Le Toux streaking down the middle and delivered a perfect pass, right in stride for the Frenchman. Le Toux finished the season on fire and the in-form forward made no mistake with this chance to level for the Union. He calmly slotted the ball past Tally Hall, who had no chance, and Philadelphia was even.
Thus far, we have a high boot that should have been a red and two goals. How about that for a start to the match?
A packed house in full voice at PPL Park? The Houston Dynamo don't care. The intimidating atmosphere is no bother for them. They'll walk in there and get a goal after just five minutes. Brad Davis whipped another great dead ball in (does he ever hit a dead ball that's not great) and Andre Hainault came flying in to nod the ball home. Uh oh. The Philadelphia Union are in trouble. That home field advantage is missing after five minutes because the Dynamo lead, 1-0.
The free kick came from the right and was a result of Gabriel Farfan's boot to the head of Danny Cruz. It should have been a red card, but Jair Marrufo only showed him yellow. it looked unfair to the Dynamo and it still is, but it did result in the goal at least and now they have themselves an early lead on the road in this two-legged affair.
SImply put, the Philadelphia Union should be down a man. It doesn't matter if it's the second minute of the match. There's no excuse for Gabriel Farfan not to be sent off after he went in with a high boot and caught Danny Cruz in the head. High boot to the head. That is a red card every single time.
There was a ball played all the way across to Cruz by the right touchline. It was always going to be Cruz's ball. The best that Farfan could have done is pressure Cruz into booting the ball out of touch, but no, he thought he smart to try and win the ball. The result was a boot to Farfan's head. Jair Marrufo is off in his own little world though and only showed a yellow card. The yellow card indicates he saw the play so there's no way Marrufo can say he missed it. He just screwed up.
The Philadelphia Union and Houston Dynamo are underway at PPL Park and the Philadelphia fans are ready for it. The Sons of Ben are in full coice and you'd be hard pressed to find an empty seat at the stadium. Yes, it's a bit chilly, but the sun is out and the pitch looks gorgeous, even after yesterday's snow. It looks like it's going to be an incredible day by the river in Chester.
This match should also be a fun one too. While the first MLS playoff match of the day between Los Angeles and New York was awful with a bad pitch ruining the ability to play and a post-match fight, that's not the case here. The two teams are fresh and ready to go. With Brad Davis and Sebastien Le Toux on each side too, there is plenty of quality. Buckle up because it is time for some fun in Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia Union head coach Peter Nowak has decided, and wisely so, that playing Sebastien Le Toux as a lone striker again probably isn't a good idea so he's going to start Danny Mwanga and let him pair the Frenchman. Interestingly, he's also brought on Stefani Miglioranzi to pair Brian Carroll in the center of the midfield, while he gets a boost from Justin Mapp, who is starting after fighting off an injury.
For the Houston Dynamo, it is exactly as expected. There aren't many surprises with Dominic Kinnear's side as they come out in their standard 4-4-2. Uh oh, it's 4-4-2 for both sides and Taylor Twellman on the call for ESPN. This will be fun.
Philadelphia Union (4-4-2): Faryd Mondragon; Sheanon Williams, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Gabriel Farfan; Michael Farfan, Brian Carroll, Stefani Miglioranzi, Justin Mapp; Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga
By the end of the season, a lot of teams have an established identity. They know how they want to play and they know which players they want to play with. For better or worse, the Philadelphia Union don't have that. They don't even have something close to that. You could come up with three or four different starting XI's that you think Peter Nowak might go with when they open their MLS Cup Playoffs campaign on Sunday against the Houston Dynamo and still be wrong. There's just no telling which guys Nowak is going to turn to or how they're going to play.
One thing we do know is that Sebastien Le Toux will start. The question is where he starts. In Philadelphia's regular season finale he started as a lone striker, but it didn't go so well. He had to go it alone up top because Veljko Paunovic was out with a right hamstring strain, an injury that is likely to keep him out on Sunday. So does Nowak choose to start Le Toux as a lone striker again? If Nowak chooses not to leave Le Toux alone up top, he will likely pair him with Danny Mwanga, who came on at halftime in that regular season finale.
Another thing that Nowak will have to decide is whether to start Freddy Adu. He's played the midseason signing as a supporting striker, out wide or as a central midfielder just in front of a defensive midfielder. All are options again on Sunday, but there's also the option of not starting Adu, which has been the case in five of Adu's 11 appearances for Philadelphia.
As for who plays in the center of the midfield, there are three options. Brian Carroll is the veteran and likely to start, but then there's also the emerging Amobi Okugo and Roger Torres. Nowak could play two of the three or just one with a more attack-minded player like Adu in front of him.
Lastly, there's Justin Mapp. He has a quadriceps strain and is a doubt for the match. If he can't go, does Adu just slide in for him on the wing? So many options all over the place for Nowak and we have no idea what he'll do.
Brotherly Game's Scott Kessler walks us through the Union's largely improved, but still tumultuous season.
Forecasts say weather should clear in plenty of time for both the Union and Red Bulls matches to go off without a hitch.
Neither the Dynamo nor the Union play the most enjoyable brands of soccer, but you have to respect their ability to get results.
Dynamo Theory's Zach Woosley explains how during a supposed rebuilding year, the Dynamo turned their fortunes around.
The Geoff Cameron vs. Sebastien Le Toux battle highlights this conference semifinal tie in the MLS Cup Playoffs
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