The scene was perfect on a brisk evening along the Delaware. PPL Park was ready. The 18,500 local fans and 25 or so Houston Dynamo fans that filled the seats and all the various nooks and crannies of the facility were ready. A national television audience was ready. The Houston Dynamo were ready. The Philadelphia Union, however, were not. From the opening kick, it was clear that Houston had traveled to Chester seeking not just a draw, but a victory. A mere five minutes in, Andre Hainault's header converted a perfect Brad Davis free kick to give the visitors the lead and leave Philadelphia fans silenced.
The Union would respond less than two minutes later, as Michael Farfan crossed a ball right into Sebastien Le Toux's run into the box, and the Frenchman did not miss, slotting the ball straight ahead into a narrow crevice between the goalpost and a diving Tally Hall. But ultimately, that seventh minute equalizer did little to change the momentum of the match. Houston continued to take the bulk of the possession and, frequently exposing Philadelphia left-back Gabriel Farfan, retook the lead in the 30th minute as Brian Ching sent a perfect ball straight behind the Union defense to the top of the box, where Calen Carr collected, put on the jets and cooly finished in on a 1-on-1 with Faryd Mondragon.
Both teams would have numerous high-quality chances throughout the rest of a highly physical first half, but Houston retained its possession game, and thereby retained its lead. By full time, six different players had received yellow cards -- four Union players (Gabriel Farfan, Stefani Miglioranzi, Sheanon Williams, Brian Carroll) and two Dynamo players (Danny Cruz, Adam Moffat).
There were no changes for either side at halftime, but it became painstakingly clear as the second half started to whiz by that the Union could not sit content with their current eleven if they hoped to equalize or, preferably, take three points. That it might cost them on the defensive side of the ball didn't quite matter at this point, despite the aggregate format of their playoff series. Jack McInerney, Roger Torres and Freddy Adu were all inserted in a 15 minute span, and by the 80th minute, the tide started to turn as Philadelphia's subs got their legs under them, some of Houston's starters' legs began to get heavy, and Philadelphia's backline began pushing up further and further.
Torres and Adu both had long-range strikes that went just off of frame, and a McInerney snap header near the penalty spot grazed off of the crossbar before coming back towards the six-yard line and promptly being cleared by Houston defenders. In the 86th minute, a pushed-up Philadelphia defense was exposed as a Dynamo clearance found Brad Davis, who -- pushed to the outside ever-so-slightly by a desperate Union backline -- let go of an absolute rocket from the top of the box only to be robbed by what can only be called a brilliant save with a flash of the hand from Mondragon. Philadelphia would have several near misses as the final minutes ticked off (Houston would have a few of their own as well, continuing to take advantage of the Union's last-ditch pushes forward), but would ultimately be unable to equalize. They are now faced with a deficit in the aggregate heading to Houston and Robertson Stadium for the series concluder on Thursday night that will see them need to lead by a goal after ninety-minutes if they hope to even make it to an extra-time session.
It must be said that Gabriel Farfan did not have a great night at left-back, and it also must be said that Union manager Piotr Nowak, in a match that he needed to win, did not put out his most offensive-minded lineup, instead deciding on a starting eleven with a little more defensive security, but in the end, his starters failed to win defensive battles while being unable to create serious offensive pressure. It now seems likely that Philadelphia will be all but forced into starting a more defensively deficient lineup on the road, where they are not as comfortable and therefore defensive responsibility is a must, so that his team can try to not just equalize, but overtake Houston on aggregate. Thursday has become an all-or-nothing situation for the Union if they hope to move on, and you can bet that the Dynamo will be ready for them.