Needed for Union: A two-goal win

Posted: October 31, 2011

OK, SO WHEN is a playoff loss not a total loss?

Well, when you're playing the first leg in Major League Soccer's conference semifinals.

The wild-card round is one-and-done, as will be the conference finals and the MLS Cup game for the title.

But the conference semifinals are a home-and-home series, and that presents the chance for second life.

The Union lost, 2-1, to the Houston Dynamo yesterday in front of a sellout crowd at PPL Park in the franchise's first-ever postseason appearance.

It was disappointing but hardly devastating.

A loss is never good, and there is no doubt that the Dynamo will take an advantage into Thursday's second leg at the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium.

Still, it's not as big as you might think after winning a road game in a two-game playoff series.

This isn't European soccer. Across the pond, where road goals are weighted in the Champions and UEFA Cup elimination rounds, two road goals are a huge advantage.

Considering what the Union would have to do in Houston based on those rules for aggregate scoring, it would almost be as if the Dynamo had a 3-1 advantage.

But in the MLS playoffs, road goals aren't weighted. It's straight aggregate scoring.

Houston has only a one-goal edge, which certainly is an advantage because all it needs is a draw in Thursday's game to move to the conference finals.

By not giving up a third goal, however, the Union has more than a puncher's chance of staying alive. If the Union gets a one-goal win in regulation, regardless how many total goals are scored, the worst it can do is force two 15-minute overtime sessions.

"All we have to do is go there and win and things are on level terms," Union defender Danny Califf said. "Obviously, you are bummed out when you lose, but this isn't over. The fact that it is a two-game series just makes crystal clear what we need to do in Houston."

It's clear which team has the advantage, but I'm not sure the Dynamo won't have a little bit more pressure.

Of course you don't want to be down, but with just a one-goal deficit, the Union should actually have more freedom to chase the game from the outset.

It can attack Houston aggressively, knowing that it's not going to change things unless it gets the game into an equalizing situation.

Usually when athletes say they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, it is bravado aimed at building self-confidence.

But in this case, for the Union, it's true.

"It may be good for this team going into the second [game] to not have to feel the pressure to defend a 1-1 tie or a one-goal lead," Union manager Peter Nowak said. "The pressure is really off right now and we can just go play."

If you can gain confidence from a one-goal loss, the Union say it has.

Trailing 2-1 at the half, Philadelphia pushed the play against Houston and came close on a couple of occasions to getting an equalizer.

Sebastian Le Toux, who scored the Union's goal, Danny Mwanga, Freddy Adu and Jack McInerney each had a strong effort at finding the back of the net in the final 45 minutes.

McInerney's header off a cross from Adu bounced off the crossbar in the 88th minute.

Again, maybe it's just what you are supposed to say, but the Union feels it has something to build on going to Houston.

"You're not happy that we lost, but we know we can beat them, too," Le Toux said. "We know we have to beat them, so it's not like you have to worry so much about defense. We're going to have to attack, and we know we can score goals. We have the tools to do that. We've had some good results in Houston in the past."

The first 15 to 20 minutes in Houston might strongly resemble the final 45 minutes of yesterday's match, with the Union pushing into the Houston zone.

The Dynamo, which had been 0-2-2 all-time against the Union, was caught in the no-man's land of wanting to be smart about defending but also not wanting to get caught sitting on a one-goal lead.

It was not a position with which Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear was completely comfortable, but he knows it could be the position his team finds itself in on Thursday.

"The guys are pretty spot-on right now," Kinnear said. "Most of them have been in this position before. But I don't think we can start the game waiting for Philadelphia to just come forward. We have to expect Philadelphia to try to put pressure on us right away.

"We have to make sure that when we step on the field, [we are] not just ready to play but to also compete. That means every man for every ball on every play."

Rarely has a one-goal advantage seemed to mean so little.


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smallwj@phillynews.com.

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