By JOEY SAMUEL
CHESTER, Pa. – In a game between a two-time MLS Cup champion and a team two years into its existence, one squad's playoff experience shined through.
After Andre Hainault and Sebastien Le Toux traded goals in a furious opening seven minutes, Calen Carr netted a 30th minute winner and the Houston Dynamo held on for the final hour to earn an 2-1 away win over the Philadelphia Union in front of a sellout crowd at PPL Park.
Despite only losing one game at home all season, Philadelphia was beaten after a gamble with the defensive formation backfired. Houston managed to create numerous chances on crosses into the box and MVP candidate Brad Davis impressed once again, assisting on Hainault's goal with one of his trademark left-footed free kicks.
Sebastien Le Toux continued his fine form as well for Philadelphia, scoring in the seventh minute for his 11th goal in 13 games. But after Carr put the Dynamo up on the half-hour mark, the Union were unable to recover in their first playoff game.
Peter Nowak made his squad more attacking with the second-haf introductions of Jack McInerney, Roger Torres, and Freddy Adu, but Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall made an astonishing nine saves to preserve the win for his team.
Nowak opened the game with a formation that the Union had not used at all throughout the entire season. Stefani Miglioranzi slotted in between Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes to form a three-man defensive line, pushing fullbacks Gabriel Farfan and Sheanon Williams farther up the wings. Miglioranzi had not played since the Union's September 7 game against New England. In that match, the team gave up four first half goals and he was subbed out at halftime.
The opening seven minutes of the game were wild, as both teams got on the scorebaord early and seemed to erase any playoff nerves they may have harbored. Houston scored in the fifth minute on a corner kick when Brad Davis played a perfect cross into the box and Andre Hainault headed it past Faryd Mondragon.
Philadelphia responded quickly, though, when Michael Farfan played a lob pass over the Houston defense to Sebastien Le Toux, who tied the game in the seventh minute with a confident finish.
Houston took the lead again in the 30th minute when Brian Ching played a weighted through ball to Calen Carr. The former Chicago Fire forward, acquired during the season for Dominic Oduro, finished the play to give Houston a 2-1 lead.
In the second half, Nowak returned to the Union's normal formational setup, moving Miglioranzi up into the midfield. Later on, he subbed out Miglioranzi for Jack McInerney and brought on creative midfielders Roger Torres and Freddy Adu in a desperate attempt for an equalizer.
Philadelphia came close to tying the match on several occasions. Torres saw his free kick saved in the upper right corner in the 74th minute, while McInerney's header clanged off the bar in the 88th.
The Dynamo managed to hold on, though, to give them a big advantage heading into the second leg on Thursday at Robertson Stadium in Houston.
"I think we knew what we were coming in to, I think we knew they would be a counter-attacking team and that they would sit back, try to defend, then throw numbers forward and that is exactly what they did," said Brad Davis. "Overall I think we battled, knew what was coming. It was a typical road game, a typical playoff game and I think they guys grinded it out."
Houston was buoyed by the great play of goalkeeper Tally Hall, whose nine saves throughout the match preserved the Dynamo's one-goal advantage.
"He was very good tonight," Dynamo coach Dom Kinnear said. "He commanded the box pretty well, and made some good saves. Tally played good."
Both goalkeepers played outstandingly in what was a matchup of this year's two MLS All Star goalies. Faryd Mondragon made an important save late in the game on Davis to keep the deficit at one heading into the second leg.
Philadelphia was left to rue a number of good chances that it created late on. The poor finishing left the Union in a big hole as they move into their second-ever playoff game on Thursday.
"We got good chances. It's not like we didn't create anything," said Nowak. "I would be very upset if we did not create anything, but we did. But if you're gonna get the chances, you've got to find yourself in a position to make sure that you challenge the defenders, that you challenge the goalkeeper. From this perspective, I think you can say we didn't do enough damage on the defensive side."
If there is one positive the Union can draw from the result, though, it's that the team knows it needs a win, and in the franchise's two visits to Houston, it has won both games.
"It shows us that we can believe in ourselves," said Brian Carroll. "We know that we've done it before and we can do it again. Obviously everything's heightened being in the playoffs, but I have full confidence in the guys, each and every one of us, that we can go down there and win the second half of this series."
The series will now head to Robertson Stadium for the second leg on Thursday night. Away goals do not count as a tiebreaker in the MLS Cup playoffs, so each team knows what it needs to advance to the conference final. A draw will be enough at home for the Dynamo, or a win by any margin. Meanwhile, the Union must win by at least two goals to win the series outright, while a one-goal win would send the series to extra time, or even penalties.