FIVE CARDS, three goals, 48 minutes. And that was just the first half.
Not a typical stat line when speaking about a Major League Soccer playoff match, but such was the case last night when the Union opened the first leg of a two-game playoff series against Houston at PPL Park.
In the 16-year history of the MLS, an average of 2.2 goals have been scored in playoff matches. By halftime in this affair, three had found the back of the net.
Unfortunately for the crowd of 18,539, the scoreline didn't end favorably for Philly, as Houston took the first match, 2-1, courtesy of a gritty Calen Carr game-winner in the 30th minute. With the decision, Houston earned its first-ever win against a Union side that matched the physical intensity of the Dynamo, but could not avoid silly fouls and potentially game-changing cautions.
Now, the series goes to Houston for a pivotal finale Thursday (8:30 p.m., ESPN2). The club with the most goals on aggregate will advance to the Eastern Conference final, to be held either Nov. 5 or Nov. 6 against the winner in the other conference semifinal between Sporting Kansas City and Colorado. Houston is ahead a goal on aggregate, meaning ideally the Union needs to hold Houston scoreless and score a pair to advance. A daunting task for a team that has scored more than one goal just seven times in MLS matches all year.
Should the match be tied 2-2 on aggregate (meaning the Union is ahead by one goal Thursday) then two 15-minute overtimes will commence. Should the scoreline remain, then the match goes to penalty kicks.
"The pressure is off us now, we have nothing to lose going into this game," said Union midfielder Jack McInerney, who was part of a three-man, second-half substitution effort, along with Roger Torres (68th minute) and Freddy Adu (76th), in hopes of fueling an offensive surge. "The pressure is all on them, considering we've beaten them twice at their place and they need to hold us scoreless."
Houston struck first just 5 minutes in after a Brad Davis free kick found defender Andrew Hainault. The goal came after Union defender Gabriel Farfan landed a yellow-card caution for a knee to the chest of Houston's Danny Cruz. Davis, who led Houston with 16 assists coming into the match, added one more with his deft ability to place a ball on the money.
"They've got like six guys that are over 6 foot; they've got some trees and that makes a big difference," defender Danny Califf said. "When you add six trees and a guy that can put the ball on a dime, they're gonna be successful on set pieces."
Two minutes later, the Union brought it level when true-footed forward Sebastien Le Toux controlled a pass from Michael Farfan just above the 6-yard box and slotted the equalizer near post past goalkeeper Tally Hall.
Not sure if it was cold gloves on a frigid night, but Hall looked shaky in his first playoff outing, unable to keep a firm grasp on balls directed to the low posts and corners. However, the Union failed to capitalize, as far too many shots on target were directed right at Hall.
"I thought Tally played well," said Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear. "He was a little shaky early, but he gained his composure and played well. But I think we didn't help him because we allowed Philadelphia to push forward and create chances, but he responded well and now we go back to our building in the right position."
Four Union players are under caution. Along with Gabe Farfan, midfielders Stefani Miglioranzi and Brian Carroll and defender Sheanon Williams all garnered yellows and could miss the conference final with another caution.
Defensively, the Union went with a five-man front in the final third as Miglioranzi helped out the customary four of Williams, Gabe Farfan, Carlos Valdes and Califf. It proved moderately effective, although at times players seemed unsure of whom to mark. However, with Houston shaky on the counter, Le Toux and Danny Mwanga, who didn't seem slowed by a hip injury he has labored with for two-thirds of the season, were able to go at a defense that had trouble on the counter.
Goal-scoring chances came in waves in the second half, with the ball even hitting the crossbar off a header on frame by McInerney. But following a season-long trend, the Union's inability to finish key opportunities came back to haunt them, fittingly on Mischief Night.
The Union finished with 10 shots on goal in its inaugural playoff game, seven in the second half. But just one found the back of the net.
"I thought our guys pushed the game hard, we were able to create chances so it wasn't an inability to create them per se," Union manager Peter Nowak said. "But when you get those chances you have to challenge the defenders and you have to challenge the goalkeeper. And that's where I think we came up short."
J-Roll in the house
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins served as honorary captain along with Flyers stars James van Riemsdyk and Scott Hartnell. Rollins, fascinated by the PPL Park playoff atmosphere, kept mum when asked to comment on his future as a Phillie. Possibly because Rollins learned Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro was taking in the match in a club suite?
"This [atmosphere] is tremendous and I feel really honored to be a part of it," Rollins said. "[As far as my future with the Phillies], I'm not here to get into that. Today is about the Union, not me."