Peter Nowak deserves a lot of credit for getting the Philadelphia Union to where they are right now. The second-year expansion team is in the MLS Cup playoffs after finishing third in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. But he also deserves at least a fair bit of blame for the fact that the Union head into the second leg of Thursday's conference semifinal against the Houston Dynamo trailing 2-1.
Despite opening at home, Nowak used the rather odd tactic of playing with five defenders in the first leg. He did this despite the fact that he was playing against a team that essentially plays for set pieces and is no one's idea of a fluid attack. Somewhat predictably, the Dynamo scored their first goal on a set piece. The second goal came when Calen Carr was somehow able to get behind all those defenders.
To the Union's credit, they did still manage to take 23 shots, 12 more than the Dynamo, so it's not like they went completely into a shell once it became apparent they were going to have score some goals. Still, you gotta wonder about the tactics and what that says about the mindset the Union started with.
Then again, to hear Nowak tell it, maybe this is exactly how he wanted it to play out, at least according to this quote at MLSSoccer.com:
"It may be good for this team to go into the second leg not feeling the pressure to defend a 1-1 tie or a 1-0 goal difference," Nowak said. "So it maybe is a good thing that the pressure is off right now and we have nothing to lose going into Houston."
To be fair, there's not many ways you can positively spin a loss at home and being down by one goal is hardly an impossible deficit to overcome. There's also a tad bit of history on the Union's side, as they have won both in both of their previous trips to Houston.
Aside from that, though, there's not a lot working in the Union's favor. Sunday's win at PPL Park was just the Dynamo's third away from home all season. Since losing to the Union at home in Week 1, the Dynamo have gone 10-2-4 during the final season at Robertson Stadium. They come into this game on an eight-match home unbeaten streak that has included wins over the Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles Galaxy and a tie against Sporting Kansas City. Collectively, the Dynamo have gone 3-0-2 at home against the teams with the five highest point totals in MLS.
Brad Davis is particularly dangerous at home, where he has registered 13 of his league-leading 16 assists. He will undoubtedly be a major part of the Dynamo's game plan. With so much his effectiveness coming from set piece service, it will force the Union to be even more careful with where they foul Dynamo players.
Nowak has succeeded all year by defying common sense, though. Most teams don't make a goalkeeper their highest paid player? Nowak goes out and signs Faryd Mondragon. Your best player is coming off a career year by playing forward? Make him a midfielder. Don't have much depth at defense? Trade your starting left back.
All of those were pretty head-scratching decisions when he made them, and not all of them paid off. Nowak, though, has made a season out of defying the pundits. Maybe he's right, maybe he has the Dynamo just where he wants them. (Of course, that's doubtful.)