Heading into Sunday night’s MLS match, the Philadelphia Union and Houston Dynamo found themselves in similar situations. Both teams had been struggling of late and could use the kind of team morale boost only a victory can provide. Theoretically still able to make the playoffs in their respective conferences, Houston and Philly entered the match needing a result to try and salvage their seasons.
The lineup trotted out by Jim Curtin was arguably the strongest one the Union have had all season. This particular iteration of Curtin’s classic 4-2-3-1 featured the return of the powerful attacking midfield trio of Tranquillo Barnetta, Cristian Maidana, and Sébastien Le Toux. Maidana had been suspended for the previous two matches due to his spitting incident against New England. Another triumphant return to the starting eleven was that of captain Maurice Edu, who had not played in over a month due to a partially torn left groin. On the other side of the field, the Dynamo lined up in a 4-3-3 that did not include several of their top players because of injury issues.
Just two minutes and change into the match, the Union found a combination of passes that led to the first goal. On the right wing, where former Union player Sheanon Williams was defending, Sébastien Le Toux ran a simple, but useful one-two with Cristian Maidana. Le Toux then sent in a low cross that Tranquillo Barnetta did well to latch onto and coolly send past the flailing legs of Tyler Deric, the Houston keeper. The goal was a special one, as it was Barnetta’s first in a Union uniform.
Following this, the Union maintained control for the rest of the first 45 minutes by being positive and exploratory with the ball while not allowing the Dynamo any free runs at goal, save for one time when they managed to hit the post. Edu showed some rust on several occasions, but simply having the defensive stalwart on the pitch was a major help. Edu’s leadership and effectiveness in organizing the back four was evident.
Philadelphia probably should have nabbed another tally before halftime, with several good chances being foiled, mostly by Deric, at the last second. These goals were not to be, however, and the Union entered the second half hungry to find the back of the net once more. The first fifteen minutes of the second half saw lots of back-and-forth play, with neither team really able to take charge. There was some chippiness in this portion of the match, with Vincent Nogueira the victim of a particularly nasty challenge. Then, in the 63rd minute, Philadelphia built an imposing attack down the left flank. Barnetta tapped the ball ahead to Fabinho who slid a ball across the face of the goal towards the big target man, C.J. Sapong. Sapong did a nice job of fighting off his defender so he could slot the ball home for his team-leading ninth goal on the year.
After the second goal, the Union sat back, happy to hold on to the ball and let time expire. The manner in which Philly closed out the match was very nice to see, considering how many leads they have given up in the past. When the final whistle sounded, marking the end of one of the Union’s finest performances of this campaign, the paltry home crowd yelled its support for the team’s efforts. The fans recognized that by achieving the 2-0 victory, the U had preserved their infinitesimal playoff chances. With only four matches left in the MLS season, let’s hope the Union finish strong.