Paunović could return just in time for Philadelphia

Veljko Paunović of the Philadelphia Union

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CHESTER, Pa. – After missing the final game of the regular season and the first game of the MLS Cup playoffs, Philadelphia Union attacker Veljko Paunović could be poised to return to the lineup.

Two days before the Union’s second-leg Eastern Conference semifinal game against the Dynamo at Houston’s Robertson Stadium (8:30 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes; live chat on MLSsoccer.com), Philly assistant coach John Hackworth gave a promising prognosis on the club’s 34-year-old veteran, who has been battling a right hamstring strain.

“Right now, we’re very hopeful he’ll be ready to go,” Hackworth said of Thursday's match.

Adding Paunović to the lineup would certainly be a good thing for the Union, who will need all the attacking players they can get  in Houston. Trailing by a goal in the aggregate, Philly will be looking to score early in the contest, and Paunović has been one of their most productive offensive players.

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Since coming out of retirement in June, the 34-year-old Serbian has three goals and three assists in 17 appearances. Before sitting out the regular-season finale vs. the Red Bulls, he started 12 of 13 games for the Union to help his new club secure their first-ever playoff berth.

“Paunović was instrumental down the stretch,” Hackworth said. “He’s one of those guys with a lot of experience who gives young guys a tremendous amount of confidence by the way he acts both on and off the field. He’s versatile enough for us to play as a midfielder or forward. He allows us to get the matchup we think we can take advantage of. We hope to have him available because he’s a big piece to our team.”

Hackworth gave no hints as to what the Union lineup would look with or without Paunović. The veteran Serbian could replace Danny Mwanga at striker or, perhaps, slide into the midfield in place of Justin Mapp (left quad strain) or Michael Farfan (right foot contusion), both of whom are currently listed on the injury report.

Knowing they need a goal, manager Peter Nowak could also trot out a very attack-minded lineup that includes Mwanga, Paunović, striker Sébastien Le Toux, and midfielders Freddy Adu and Roger Torres. Interestingly enough, though, the last time all five of those players started the same game – on Sept. 10 against Portland – the Union were shut out.  

Whatever the coaches end up deciding, Hackworth said the players are feeling good heading into Thursday’s game.

“We had a good training session that was lively and spirited,” Hackworth said. “There are a lot of smiles. Coming out of Sunday’s game, we were all disappointed we didn’t get the result we needed but we actually feel pretty confident that we have a good chance in this series.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com