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

The Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union kick off their 2011 MLS Playoff campaigns Sunday afternoon in the Eastern Confernece semifinals. Both teams fought hard to get this far, but who will advance? Scott Kessler of the Brotherly Game and Zach Woosley of Dynamo Theory discuss Sunday's semifinal.

Scott Kessler of The Brotherly Game, SB Nations's Philadelphia Union blog, reached out to Zach Woosley of Dynamo Theory and myself to discuss five important questions ahead of Sunday's Eastern Conference semifinal. 

tBG: Will Carlos Costly, Will Bruin and Brian Ching be able to penetrate a Philadelphia Union back four that let up only 36 goals in the 2011 season? Will Ching be able to impact the series at all after an injury plagued year?

Zach: That's the key to the series really. Houston's offense has been a bit schizophrenic all season and while there is certainly enough talent to find the back of the net, they just have not been able to consistently do it week in, week out. Carlo Costly getting his first goal in MLS against LA could be huge. The Dynamo are going to need his ability and physical precense against a strong Union defense, so if he can get going things could go very well for the Dynamo. More important that the forwards though will be the rest of the midfield taking defensive pressure off Brad Davis.

Jordan: That really is the most important question going into this series for the Dynamo. Up until the last few games, Houston has, at best, been inconsistent at best in their attack. But, it looks like the Dynamo have found a bit of a scoring touch the last few weeks and momentum could be on their side. Ching may not be the player he was three years ago, but he still is a leader on this team and creates chances through his work rate. The key, though, will be who steps up next to him and produces goals. Carlos Costly found the back of the net for the first time against Los Angeles, and, as we've seen in the Gold Cup, can be lethal when he finds his scoring touch. Calen Carr provides Houston with some much-needed speed and is another player that Philadelphia haven't faced yet. Houston's offense will live and die at Brad Davis' feet. If he can continue to produce, the Dynamo will find a way to score the important goals.

***

tBG: Brad Davis is obviously the main threat out of the Houston Dynamo's midfield, but who is the secondary threat from it? Is the aggressive Danny Cruz the biggest worry other than Davis?

Zach: There isn't a singular secondary threat in the Dynamo midfield. Luiz Camargo isn't going to score goals but he's been a fantastic addition finally giving Houston a controlling force in the middle that's allowed everyone else to focus on playing their position. Danny Cruz will need to have a good series and threaten the Union defense with speed in order to draw some attention away from Davis. Adam Moffat will do his job fine and given a chance, he'll sneak in to space and let loose some of his patented rocket shots. Basically, it's a team effort. The better the entire midfield plays, the more effective Davis can be.

Jordan: Davis has played an MVP-worthy season; he's been consistent from set-pieces, in open play, and has even managed a few goals to go along with his league-leading 16 assists. The most telling fact of all is that Davis has managed to do all of that in spite of team's focusing on him and trying to shut him down. 

Outside of Davis, Houston's most important midfielder is Luiz Camargo, who has quietly incorporated himself into the Dynamo offense, creating space and chances for the rest of the team to work. Camargo may not score many goals, but he has created the space for Brad Davis, Danny Cruz, and Adam Moffat to work. Cruz needs to have an impactful post-season but has had a Jekyll and Hyde season. Some games he produces brilliant efforts (Portland) and other games he frustrates with errant crosses and sloppy footwork. All in all, though, it is the Dynamo midfielders' responsibility to give Brad Davis the ball and help him create chances.

***

tBG: Tally Hall has had a fantastic year, but can he lead a defense, in the playoffs, that only recently got a major boost from Geoff Cameron moving into a central defensive role, to a win over the Union?

Zach: Tally Hall is comfortable leading the defense and his back line trust him and knows what he's capable of doing. Moving Cameron back in to the defense was the best move Kinnear has made all season. Bobby Boswell is better with Cameron next to him and while Hainault is better inside, he's done wonderful on the outside giving the Dynamo better defensive organization down the stretch. Sure Hall's game experience doesn't match up with Mondragon, but it's not like he just started playing with this team last week. Hall's true value is his ability to make tremendous saves and key moments and keep the Dynamo in games when things break down at times.

Jordan: Tally Hall has had a magnificent year in what is effectively his rookie season, despite some of the defensive mishaps from the four guys in front of him. The Dynamo defense was porous at best and inept at worst early on, but the return of veritable utility man, Geoff Cameron, has provided the defense with a sense of stability. 

The team has looked better the last few games of the season with a defensive line-up for Corey Ashe, Bobby Boswell, Cameron, and Andre Hainault. While Cameron may be the key player that Houston needed in the right position, there should be no doubt that Hall is the clear leader of this defense. Hall's ability to consistently come up with massive saves in key moments is the sole reason the Dynamo made it into the play-offs and did not drop more points. While he may be a "rookie", Hall has the skills and the chemistry with his defense to lead this team against a tough Union offense.

***

Jordan: Sebastien Le Toux (great soccer name, by the way) leads the Union with 11 goals and 9 assists, yet he didn't score in the series against Houston this year.  What will the Union do to get Le Toux the ball?  And, if Le Toux is shut down, how will Philadelphia change tactics?

tBG: Le Toux didn't score from the run of play until mid-September, so don't feel left out of his goal scoring exploits. Last season Le Toux had a sublime goal in the Union's home leg of the season series last year. This season, as you've pointed out, not so much. The Union have employed Le Toux as the sole forward in a 4-1-4-1 of sorts for much of their run during the second half of the season. Service has been provided to the Frenchman through rookie attacking midfielder Michael Farfan, who is a front runner for the Rookie of the Year award, Freddy Adu or Roger Torres, and Justin Mapp. Serbian veteran Veljko Paunovic has also helped Le Toux with his current form, but Paunovic is listed as doubtful, and Mapp is listed as questionable. The unfortunate part of the rise of the Union's attacking components of the midfield, and Le Toux, is that the team too heavily relies upon Le Toux and lacks a true second striker currently. Paunovic has spent time at a secondary forward role, as has Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney. None of them have been able to fully secure the role, which has led head coach Piotr Nowak to employ only Le Toux up front. For a title run to happen, the Union need Mwanga or McInerney to step up when necessary, or Le Toux will most likely be shut down and the Union out of the playoffs at some point.

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Jordan: In the games earlier this year between Philadelphia and Houston, the Union scored early goals and "parked the bus" for the remainder of the game.  Do you think this will be Nowak's tactic again for the playoffs or will the Union change tactics and fans will see a more offensive-centered game?

tBG: Nowak sometimes would employ defensive tactics this season in order to maintain leads, but nothing like what happened against the Dynamo. Sure he's brought on Stefani Miglioranzi, Amobi Okugo or other players in order to sure up a lead, but the Houston game at the beginning of the season seemed like 10 men behind the ball for the Union. In the playoffs, we won't see that happen. Expect Nowak to come out firing at home, hoping to bring a win into the second leg in Houston. A line up that includes both Torres and Adu, along with M. Farfan and Le Toux will most likely be Nowak's starting point for a goal at home.

***

MLS injury report (as of Tuesday, October 25:

HOUSTON DYNAMO -- OUT: FW Cam Weaver (R hip)
PHILADELPHIA UNION -- OUT: GK Thorne Holder (concussion); FW Levi Houapeu (L ankle strain); DOUBTFUL: FW Veljko Paunovic (R hamstring strain); QUESTIONABLE: MF Justin Mapp (L quad strain); PROBABLE: DF Joe Tait (R ankle sprain)

Sunday's game will kick off at 4 p.m. CT at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., and can be seen on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes. It can be heard in the Houston area on KPRC 950 and La Ranchera 850. The second leg will be Thursday night, November 3, at Robertson Stadium at 7:30 p.m.

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