The Philadelphia Union headed into Houston to play the host Dynamo in the second leg of the Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semifinals Thursday night down 2-1 on aggregate.
Union fans held out hope for a turnaround in Texas, and the national broadcast on ESPN2 allowed all Philly fans the chance to will the team on collectively from afar.
The lineup was its usual Peter Nowak-type shocker for the Union, with Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga up top, Veljko Paunovic in the hole, and Michael Farfan and Sebastien Le Toux (Philly's best striker) wide left and right, respectively.
When it was announced about an hour before gametime, I applauded Nowak for his attack-minded attentions, but to maroon clinical finisher Le Toux out on the flank, away from the goal?
Not cool. But, those were my pregame thoughts. To be quite honest, I was happy with any formation besides the five-man defense the manager trotted out in the first leg at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. last Sunday.
But it's one thing to throw caution to the wind and another to simply throw attacking players all over the final third of the field, regardless of whether or not they fit there.
When the game kicked off, I was slightly put off by the football lines at the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium. Don't get me wrong ... I love football. But it shows how far we've come as a soccer nation that I do look forward to watching soccer on TV on a regular soccer pitch. Oh, well. I got over it rather quickly.
In the 2nd minute, Mwanga took a cracking shot from the left wing that strafed the top of the Houston net. As good as the shot was, the Union found themselves defending for their lives. Right back Sheanon Williams crucially intervened in the box, then goalkeeper
Faryd Mondragon came off his line in a timely, physical manner.
As the first half started to take a tangible shape, one thought kept banging through my head: Le Toux isn't touching the ball enough. Also, Michael Farfan (first name repeated because his twin brother Gabe also was playing) just doesn't seem to have the cutting edge in the final third of the field that a Freddy Adu or Roger Torres might have.
But those players were left on the bench, and the Union looked slightly off. Then again, I suppose that's what happens when you play unfamiliar formations and plug players in where they don't know how to make that key run off the ball.
A little bit later, the Dynamo started to knock the ball around the midfield and impose themselves on the game. Their stretch of possession posed quite a contrast with the Union's disjointed style of play. Philly just lacked an obvious link between the midfield and the strikers.
But, after a great scoring chance that Houston's Brad Davis just missed, Mwanga came out of nowhere for the Union and peppered Houston's goal with a shot that was just wide left. Oh, so close and a huge chance for Philly to pull even on aggregate.
And then, just like that, Houston took a 1-0 lead (and 3-1 on aggregate) in the last minute of the first half. Carlos Valdes conceded a petulant, silly foul in the Dynamo's final third. As if on cue, Houston set-piece specialist Brad Davis curled a sweet ball on to the noggin of teammate Brian Ching.
Ching created just a bit of separation from Union defender Danny Califf and deposited the ball into the upper-right corner of the net. At this point, the Union was exiting the playoffs with a whimper, not a bang. It would be interesting to see what tactical adjustments Nowak would make, if any.
But my gut told me he would wait too long to move Le Toux back up top, lose Michael Farfan and get a Torres or Adu into the match. At halftime, I thought it also might be time to go to three at the back, with either a Califf or Valdes giving way. Paunovic also wasn't setting the world on fire, and what would it matter if you lost by two goals on aggregate or four?
Yet, typically, no changes were made by Nowak as the second half kicked off. I coach myself, and I'll never understand the thinking that a game can be changed in the last 20 minutes. And, in this case, the Union needed two goals to force extra time.
For instance, why not take off the invisible McInerney and roll the dice on Adu? He, at least, would play the short balls along the ground that the Union had been lacking all night. The Union did exert some pressure as the second half began, but as the space started to open up and the players' legs started to tire, the Dynamo's swagger started to become the defining factor of this two-game series.
Much like he did in the first leg, Mondragon kept the Union in the series with a stellar, point-blank save against Calen Carr about nine minutes into the second half. But at this point, the Union wasn't even getting near the ball.
A half-chance off the boot of Mwanga came to nothing, and the Dynamo began exploiting the space out wide. Paunovic tested Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall in the 60th minute with a rare Philly shot, but Hall held it and yielded no rebound.
A Philadelphia corner in the 64th minute bounced around in the box before Hall gathered it, and at this point you had to question the lack of clever play by the Union ... if not their commitment. Nowak decided to roll the dice in the 66th minute, inserting Justin Mapp, Adu and Torres in for Mwanga, Paunovic and Gabe Farfan.
Nice, but a little too late? Philly won three quick corners in succession, but a bunch of huffing and puffing by the team amounted to nothing.
With the fresh legs on the field, the Union started to attack in waves. The aggressive play wasn't always the most subtle, but at least the team was going forward at this point. The final ball was lacking, and the old saying about dribbling into blind alleys seemed to apply to the Union as the 80th minute arrived.
Any ball that did make its way into the Houston box seemed to be accompanied by a tentativeness by the Union. The team seemed to run out of ideas in the final third, and the play just seemed to fizzle out. Houston's veteran leadership knew how to close the game, and it punched them a ticket in the Eastern Conference final Sunday.
For the Union, there are plenty of weeks to take stock and evaluate what this all means ahead of the 2012 season. That analysis will come soon enough. But for now, the Union's season is over.