It sure wasn't pretty. In fact, if legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes had been watching the Philadelphia Union's 1-0 road win over the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night, he might have recognized his "3 yards and a cloud of dust" mentality ... only this time effectively applied to another sport.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not leveling this as a criticism of Union manager Peter Nowak and his staff regarding the way they approached the team's 2011 Major League Soccer opener at Robertson Stadium in Houston. Early on, points are vital. But there's a reason fans invest in a hometown team such as the Union.

Sure, as a supporter you're definitely "rooting for the shirt," no matter who plays in it over the years. And, after an inaugural season that saw the team post an 8-15-7 record, you take any wins you can get. Still, Saturday night's game would never have qualified as essential viewing, no matter how you slice it.

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You just want to see a bit more attacking soccer and entertaining brand of play. Yes, the defensive abilities of Kyle Nakazawa and Stefani Miglioranzi are much appreciated. It was a road game, and keen observers just know that Nowak will unveil a hell-for-leather, attack-first lineup this coming Saturday for the home opener against Vancouver.

Yet, as a fan, you just see players like Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga left on the bench and you shake your head. Yes, there's no question ... Nowak knows better than I do how to shape this team for a victory, and his acumen was proven (and then some) on Saturday night. The Union were compact and hard to beat, and the result followed.

There were some definite and overriding positives about the match, for sure. To start with, central defender Danny Califf grabbed his first goal for the club by displaying a quick reaction with his left foot in just the 5th minute. Califf, through no fault of his own (it just makes sense, due to age and experience), lost the captaincy to new Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon.

But, what better way for Califf to answer any critics then with the game-winner? That goal was the result of a throw-in by right-back Shaenon Williams that traveled at least 35 yards ... it reminded me of Stoke City's Rory Delap from the English Premier League, only Williams didn't need a towel and about 15 seconds to get his footing right.

The best part about the rest of the game from the Union faithful's perspective was that Philly was able to dictate play on the road for the full 90 minutes. Without the services of the injured striker Brian Ching, Houston looked toothless. Gone are the days when a "new" team (2 years old) like the Union can't be effective.

I was chatting with ESPN soccer announcers Max Bretos and John Harkes on Friday, and they each had some unique perspectives on Philadelphia's chances this season. Bretos, especially, has learned to appreciate the veteran presence Mondragon can bring to the Union after spending all those seasons in Europe.

"On the surface, it's easy to be critical of signing a 39-year-old keeper," Bretos said. "Still, the more I look at this move, the more I like it. The club basically needs him for two years while allowing (teenage draft pick) Zac MacMath to develop, and I think he has that left in his tank ... although Mondragon could break down as the season wears on."

Bretos thinks the signings of Mondragon and Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz will help the Union solidify their place in the Eastern Conference standings.

"Goalkeeping is not a strength in MLS these days ... and it's sad when you think of what the league once had at that position, I would have to put Mondragon in the top half," Bretos said.

"And signing Ruiz is a solid move. He's a proven goalscorer in this league, which you cannot say about many people. MLS offers unique challenges for strikers, and those are challenges he has met."

Harkes thinks with a solid season, the Union can make some noise in the MLS playoffs this season.

"It's not the same as it used to be, when you talked about expansion or second-year-teams," said Harkes, who captained the U.S. National Team. "There are more ... and better ... players in the league and more resources for teams these days. The Union can compete."

Bretos agrees with his ESPN colleague about Philadelphia's chances.

"The Eastern Conference looks very average this year, which should help the Union's chances," he said. "I would like to see them get another quality body and add to the defense. As it stands, I see this team fighting for the 4th or 5th spot in the East."

And based on the win over Houston on Saturday night, the Union intend to make the 2011 campaign a bit more interesting when it comes to making the playoffs. Next up? The Vancouver Whitecaps at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. on March 26 at 4 p.m.

I caught most of the Whitecaps' 4-2 home win over Toronto FC on MLS Direct Kick on Saturday afternoon. Jay DeMerit is a presence at the back, and the Whitecaps like to spread the ball. It will be a tough challenge, but the Union seem better equipped to step up to such tasks this season.

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