By JOEY SAMUEL
CHESTER, Pa. – It wasn't pretty, and it certainly wasn't impressive. But it was good enough, at least for now.
Behind a goal from Sebastien Le Toux, the Philadelphia Union tied Toronto FC, 1-1, in front of a record crowd at PPL Park. They played a mostly lackluster 90 minutes against a team with next to nothing to play for, but it was enough for the Union to clinch a playoff berth in just their second MLS season. However, the Union's hold on first place in the Eastern Conference disappeared with the disappointing draw.
Le Toux continued to make his late case for the league MVP award when he scored the game's opening goal in the 43rd minute. He took a pass from Justin Mapp and was left open on the edge of the box. The Frenchman unleashed a shot that curled around Toronto goalie Milos Kocic for the goal, his 10th in 11 games.
Toronto FC responded, though, as Aron Winter began to make changes to his side in the second half. He brought on Nathan Sturgis for Torsten Frings, and not long after, the Reds managed to create an equalizer. Nick Soolsma fed Ryan Johnson a pass into the penalty area, and Johnson deftly one-timed the ball past Mondragon to make it 1-1 in the 57th minute.
Peter Nowak reacted to the goal by bringing on young strikers Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga as well as creative midfielder Roger Torres for Philly. But the Union were unable to find a winning goal as their passes were uncreative and their first touch let them down.
In the end, though, the draw was enough for Philadelphia to clinch its first playoff berth in franchise history in only its second season of existence.
"It's a great day for this group. The hard work, and everything they put on the line, it paid off," said Peter Nowak. "We tied the game, but we're in the playoffs, and this is more important than anything after a long seven months."
"It feels good," said Union defender Sheanon Williams. "It was definitely one of our goals in the beginning of the season, so to finally accomplish it is a step in the right direction. It's not the ultimate goal, but you need to take this step before you take some others."
"I think [Faryd] needed this game. It's not easy switching gears. He needed this game to be familiar with the back line, to be back with them feeling better. It was a good game for him. He didn't have much work except for the shot, but it was good that he was on the field. Even though Zac did a great job over the past seven weeks, it was good to bring Faryd back."
However, the draw does means that the Union been tied for first in the East by Sporting Kansas City, who won Saturday. Entering the day, Philadelphia could have all but sealed the top spot in the conference. But now, it's actually possible for the Union to drop all the way back to the wild card places.
"I think they were a little bit scared to win this game today," Nowak said. "You can see the difference with a team that has two weeks off. [Toronto] were more fresh. I think it's a good wake-up call that you have to bring the right mentality and the right approach to the game. But the group is still young and inexperienced, and you've got to accept that."
For Toronto, a point on the road against the first-placed team in the conference will mean nothing in terms of the standings, but it could serve as a confidence builder ahead of their massive clash with FC Dallas in CONCACAF Champions League play on Tuesday. That game, one of the biggest in Toronto's franchise history, was certainly on head coach Aron Winter's mind Saturday.
"It's a good result," Winter said. "It's good for the team spirit. Everybody knows the game against Dallas could be an important game. To get everybody fit, no injuries, that was also important, and now we can prepare ourselves for the upcoming game."
Winter notably made all of his substitutions before the 70th minute. He explained that several players needed to rest ahead of the Dallas game.
"We don't have a big roster, and last game we played with mostly the same lineup. I was a little bit protective with the players because some of them, like [Joao] Plata, have been injured. It's his first game in a couple weeks and you have to be careful. Torsten [Frings] had a little pain, and especially against Philadelphia, a good team, you don't want to force anything."
Toronto will now turn their focus to that all-important game on Tuesday, which they must win in order to advance to the knockout stages. The Union, meanwhile, will finish their season in just five days when they travel to Red Bull Arena to take on New York, who have not yet sealed a playoff berth. That match, which will feature some 750 traveling Union fans, will have many implications on the final standings in the Eastern Conference.