Union admit "zone" backfired on Ching game-winner

Peter Nowak

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HOUSTON – Leaving Houston forward Brian Ching alone at the top of the box moments before scoring was all part of the plan.

Though many will find it hard to believe, it was by design that the Philadelphia Union decided not to body up againstChing on the decisive goal in the Houston Dynamo’s 1-0 second leg victory over the Union in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Before Dynamo set piece specialist Brad Davis delivered the free kick from the left side in first-half added time, the Union played a zone defense. In this case it meant allowing two of Houston’s aerial threats, Ching and Geoff Cameron, to get a free five-yard head start run from the top of the box.

WATCH: Ching beats Union zone
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“We were confused sometimes,” Union defender Carlos Valdes admitted. “We had a clear idea that we wanted to use a zone to handle balls from the flanks but sometimes these plays escape you, because they’re smart players that start from the back where no one sees them in order to beat the zone. That defined the game and the qualification for them.”

It wasn’t the greatest of nights for zone defending on set pieces. The New York Red Bulls gave up a similar back-breaking goal to the LA Galaxy just before halftime in the Western Conference semifinals. There too, zone defending allowed Galaxy midfielder Mike Magee to enjoy an unimpeded run even though NY’s Dane Richards shadowed him. That goal came on a corner kick.

“He came from the rebound area [top of the box], perhaps not that easy to pick up,” Red Bulls manager Hans Backe said. “Perhaps our guys in the zone positioning should have attacked the ball, but it’s been too many goals from set plays during the whole season.”

WATCH: Magee beats NY zone
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That statement was coming from a Red Bull team that actually ditched zone marking earlier this season, a move which Backe credited with a defensive revival.

But back in Houston, the experienced Ching picked up on the Union’s game plan of using a zone defense on dead balls coming from the flanks. And he made the adjustment to put himself in position to tally the only goal of the match as the Dynamo clinched the series 3-1 on aggregate.

“On those set-pieces they weren’t man-marking, they were zone marking,” Ching told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “I stayed off the back and made the late run in the box and the ball found me. I was happy I was able to score.”

“I think we’d been dealing with set-pieces pretty well tonight,” defender Danny Califf said of his team’s coverage before the goal scored by Houston before the break. “But he [Ching] came from deep and came around the front. Everyone was dropping back … It was a good finish.”