The stage was set for a memorable evening at PPL Park as the Philadelphia Union prepared to play host to their very first playoff fixture in club history. After finishing the regular season in dramatic fashion, the Union were prepared to take their first steps toward winning an MLS Cup championship. The only thing standing in their way was the Houston Dynamo - a team who had never beaten them in any of their previous match-ups.
Unfortunately for the Union, thanks in part to a problematic first-half formation, a controversial decision to include Stefani Miglioranzi in the starting lineup, and several close call fouls, that wasn't the case: the Houston Dynamo defeated the Philadelphia Union, 2-1, in front of a stunned home crowd.
With their backs against the wall, Philadelphia needed to pull off a big win in game 2 to keep their playoff hopes alive. With the 2nd leg of the semifinal being played in Houston, the Union needed to close the goal differential gap by either finishing the match with a 1-0 lead to send the game into overtime or by finishing with a +2 goal margin to advance. With both teams heading into the match with something to prove, it was do or die for the Philadelphia Union.
The Houston Dynamo knew what they had to do: defend their goal differential. They needed to play resourcefully, play for possession, and, most importantly, defend to the death - do not allow a Union goal.
As for Philadelphia's manager Peter Nowak, he had to be much more careful in his selection of formation and starting lineup. With everything on the line, he knew he needed to put the best out on the field. He needed balance, compatibility, and most importantly, offense - they needed to score that goal.
In an arguably brave move, Nowak chose not to start Roger Torres (who had an impressive 2nd-half in game 1) and instead chose to start both the Farfan twins again. He also gave the go-ahead knod to Veljko Paunovic (who only days before was still listed as questionable with his hamstring injury) along with Jack McInerney, who had only started 5 games this entire season (albeit playing in 18 overall). In retrospect, many of these selections may come into question.
Regardless, the Union came out strong in the first-half, playing with much more poise and patience than they did in game 1; likewise, the Houston Dynamo were on their toes and wouldn't allow much room for any comfortable runs from the Union squad. For the most part, the first-half was evenly matched: it was a back and forth game of possession, opportunity, and turnover - at least until Carlos Valdes received a foul for leading with his elbow late in the first-half, setting up a Brad Davis free kick which found Brian Ching, who promptly scored to put the Houston Dynamo into the lead, 1-0 (but more importantly, by +2 goals in the series overall).
The second half of the match was nearly identical to the first: both teams struggled to retain possession, eagerly seeking to capitalize on any defensive miscues - albeit none. Despite Nowak's decision to use all 3 substitutes at once to try and salvage some goals in the latter of the half, the match ended in favor of the Houston Dynamo, 1-0 - eliminating the Philadelphia Union from the playoffs.
There is much to be said about this series - a lot of which will remain up to debate.
But with everything said and done, let's take a moment to recognize the importance of this playoff series. This was the first ever playoff appearance by the Philadelphia Union - and it came in only their sophomore season in MLS. That's something you can't say for a lot of teams. What they have managed to accomplish within the span of 2 short years is nothing short of brilliance.
Most teams don't head into their sophomore season looking to make big acquisitions like Carlos Ruiz, Faryd Mondragon, Carlos Valdes, Veljko Paunovic, and former USMNT player Freddy Adu (not to mention the attempted signing of former Italian national defender Fabio Grosso). Most teams also don't unload the majority of their freshman season's starting 11 squad in exchange for new faces with hopes of better seasons to come.
It's difficult not to be disappointed with the series. It's also difficult not to question some of the decisions made during the series. But, it's just as difficult to not be proud of how far the Union have come. At a moment when most fans would frown in disapproval upon their team's elimination from the post-season, I could proudly say that after it was all said and done (and the frustration finally ended), I could smile: for the season may have come to a close, but the doop is everlasting.
Next season, my friends. Next season.