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MLS Cup Playoffs: Match #35 Preview: Philadelphia Union Vs. Houston Dynamo

CHESTER, PA- AUGUST 06: Veljko Paunovic #16 of the Philadelphia Union gets between teammate Carlos Valdes #5 and Andre Hainault #31 and Geoff Cameron #20 of the Houston Dynamo at PPL Park on August 6, 2011 in Chester, Pennsylvania. The game ended 1-1.(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Setting: Sunday, October 30 at PPL Park in Chester; kickoff scheduled for 5:15 PM Eastern

Broadcast Information: ESPN2 and ESPN3.com (Rob Stone, Taylor Twellman), ESPN Deportes and ESPN Deportes Radio nationwide, with coverage beginning at 5:00 PM Eastern

Houston's Regular Season Record: 12-9-13, second in East

Houston's Last Match: W, 3-1 vs. LA

Philadelphia vs. Houston This Season: 1-0-1 (Philadelphia 1 @ Houston 0 on March 19, in the teams' regular season opener; Houston 1 @ Philadelphia 1 on August 6)

For the Houston Perspective, Visit Dynamo Theory

It's hard to put the feelings that are going through the minds of Philadelphia Union fans right now into words. This team, that didn't exist two years ago, is just hours away from competing in its league's playoffs. The difference from year one to year two has been night and day, and this despite the already-young team becoming even younger. It's not just the illusion of youth, either. In other words, it's not just the bench that's gotten younger -- it's the starters, too -- which makes the team's ascent to the playoffs even more remarkable. But we'll have plenty of time to opine on this regular season throughout the winter; for the moment, the current challenge that lies ahead is the Houston Dynamo in the form of a two match home-and-away series.

These two teams met in their regular season openers, and both teams have grown rather dramatically from that Saturday night at Robertson Stadium. But one thing that remains clear is that these are two very similar teams. When they're at their best, their preferred style of play may not be the prettiest in the league. It may not involve the flashiest goal scoring, or for that matter very much goal scoring at all. It's effective, though, and they will clog you up and shut you down. Philadelphia's defense has been the best in the East, and Houston's ranks as number three. And it's carried these two clubs into the upper-echelon of their Eastern Conference.

But that doesn't mean that these teams are fully devoid from offense. The Union's Sebastien Le Toux has had an absolutely dominant second half of the season, and one can't help but get the feeling that while they've yet to get Freddy Adu to fully click into the lineup, if and when they do, he will be amongst the most dangerous in the league. Danny Mwanga, a Rookie of the Year candidate from a year ago, is back from injury, and don't forget about Roger Torres and, increasingly, Michael Farfan. Veljko Paunovic, whose importance to the team's offense has grown exponentially since joining the team in mid-June, is likely to be kept out due to a right hamstring strain, which is troubling, but the Union have plenty of skill on their roster to make up for his absence. The Dynamo are still led by Brian Ching, but the key challenge for Philadelphia is that Houston has been able to consistently spread the bulk of its scoring to several players. Seven Dynamo players have scored four or more goals. The Union have three players that fall into that category. But the one player to watch for on the Dynamo is Brad Davis. He's one of Houston's seven four-or-more goal scorers with four on the season, but he also has 16 assists. That is not a typo. He leads the league in assists, and if you combine his goals and assists, he's directly contributed to 21 of Houston's 45 goals. In other words, if you can keep Davis to the outside and bottle him up, you've just cut off about half of Houston's offense. It's far from that easy, of course, but that has to be objective #1 from the Union.

Projected starters, up-to-date injury reports and assorted notes after the jump...

Likely starters:

Philadelphia: Mondragon (C); G. Farfan, Valdes, Califf, Williams; Carroll; M. Farfan, Adu, Torres; Le Toux, Mwanga

Houston: Hall; Ashe, Cameron, Boswell, Hainault; Davis, Camargo, Moffat, Cruz; Carr, Ching

Injury updates:

For Philadelphia, Thorne Holder and Levi Houapeu remain unavailable with a concussion and a left ankle strain, respectively. Veljko Paunovic is listed as "doubtful" with a right hamstring strain. Justin Mapp is "questionable" due to a left quad strain. Joe Tait is "probable" despite a right ankle sprain.

For Houston, Cam Weaver is out thanks to a right hip issue.

Of note:

  • Jair Marrufo will be tomorrow's match referee. In 126 career MLS matches, Marrufo has called for an average of between 24 and 25 fouls per match, handed out an average of just over three yellow cards per match, given a total of 29 red cards and has awarded a total of 41 penalty kicks.
  • The Union have yet to lose to the Dynamo. That amounts to roughly nothing for tomorrow evening, but there you go.
  • Twelve of the 41 goals the Dynamo conceded in the regular season came in the last fifteen minutes of matches. On the other hand, 14 of their 45 goals scored in the regular season came in the last fifteen minutes of matches. So...there's a half-decent chance there will be a goal in the latter stages of tomorrow night's match.
  • The Dynamo come into PPL Park unbeaten in their last six matches (4-0-2), making them the hottest team in MLS entering the playoffs.
There's no telling what will happen tomorrow evening at PPL Park and Thursday night at Robertson Stadium. These teams are remarkably similar no matter how you dissect them, so this has the potential to be a very, very close (and very, very exciting) series. Or...it could be a laugher in favor of either team. That's the beauty of the whole thing. Whether you're going to PPL Park tomorrow, Robertson Stadium on Thursday, both or neither, please enjoy it. And if you're not going down to Chester tomorrow, we hope you can join us for a gamethread!
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