It’s going to be a chilly reception for the Houston Dynamo in Philadelphia for the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal. That has as much to do with the early winter storm on the East Coast as the notoriously rowdy Philadelphia fans who will brave the weather for the Union’s first ever home playoff game. Both teams had their chances to finish on top of the Eastern Conference, but in a tight division a couple of results made the difference.
Dominic Kinnear’s Dynamo had a very slow start to the 2011 campaign. By most accounts, they shouldn’t have even been in contention for a playoff spot. However, Brian Ching’s return from injury and a career year for left wing Brad Davis propelled them up the standings. It helped that they didn’t participate in the CONCACAF Champions League and exited the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in their first match back in April. That left the summer and fall clear of the distraction brought about by success. Three wins and three ties in the last six games moved them into the second spot.
There is no star on the Dynamo, no Designated Player who attracts international attention. It’s a hard-working group. Four players tied for the team lead in goals with five. Brad Davis chipped in four to go with his league-leading sixteen assists. Davis will be a key player against the Union as Houston relies on his set piece deliveries to threaten Farid Mondragon’s goal.
Goalkeeper Tally Hall played every minute of the regular season. He stepped in after Pat Onstad finally retired and has been good mostly and at times spectacular, keeping the Dynamo close in most games. He could even be considered for the annual US national team camp that hosts primarily MLS players. Bobby Boswell’s return to form and the continued presence of Geoff Cameron give the Dynamo a strong spine up the middle.
For the Dynamo to get past the Union, they will have to shut down Sebastien LeToux. Cutting off his supply will be the key. The Union have used a variety of combinations in midfield which has included moving LeToux around the formation to free him up. The Dynamo will have to be aware of where he is. If he goes wide, Corey Ashe and Danny Cruz may have more responsibility for tracking his movement. Communication and awareness will be the key.
For a second year team, the Union did exceptionally well. The brought in some veteran talent in Mondragon and added Freddy Adu to liven up competition for places in midfield. The Farfan twins, Gabriel and Michael, have grown into important roles in defense and midfield. They are technically solid and versatile, giving coach Peter Nowak additional flexibility.
Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes are the core of the back line. Califf lacks mobility, but his physical presence gives the Union an edge defending set pieces. Even with a changing group of fullbacks around them Califf and Valdes have shown the ability to remain cohesive in the middle.
These games look like being settled by superior wide play. The Union will have to shut down Brad Davis’ service and avoid conceding too many free kicks and corners which give the Dynamo the opportunity to bring Boswell and Cameron into the penalty area. The Dynamo will have to find the mobile LeToux and make sure he doesn’t hurt them. Houston will start as firm favorites as they finish their time in Robertson Stadium, while looking forward to having their own ground in 2012.