Peter Nowak has called for focus and relaxation ahead of Philadelphia’s first-ever playoff match as his Union face Houston at PPL Park on Sunday (4 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).
The Philly manager stressed the importance of his inexperienced squad doing their job. If they do that, the rest will take care of itself.
“Everything we did in the past 34 weeks won’t matter,” Nowak told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday. “What matters now is to focus. You can’t go and run all over the place and be like mad men. There are three factors you have to do: be simple, be efficient and be effective.”
Nowak also believes his squad may have to revert to playing less attractive soccer in order to get the all-important results needed in the playoff environment. Philly have been known for their fast-flowing, counterattacking play this season, but this cavalier approach may be put on the backburner for the playoffs.
“This game, the conference final and the MLS Cup aren’t about who plays the prettiest soccer,” Nowak said. “It’s about who wins the games and wins the series. That’s part of the beauty of the playoffs. One shot, one tackle or one 30-yard run could be the difference.”
Homework on Houston
Nowak’s young squad has generated success in just its second season, something which was unexpected but also very pleasing for him and his staff. However, something that won't surprised him is what Houston will bring to the table when the sides kick off on Sunday.
Both previous encounters have been tight affairs. The Union recorded a 1-0 win at Robertson Stadium on the opening day of the season thanks to Danny Califf’s header, and the sides drew 1-1 at PPL Park on Aug. 6.
Nowak believes the Dynamo’s core group – many of whom have already tasted success in the MLS Cup – may be a big advantage going into the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“They have a lot of guys who have already won the championship,” Nowak said. “Houston compete, they know every play matters. When the result is on the line, they know exactly what to do. Ninety percent of my guys have never been in this situation.”
The main catalyst for Houston this season has been midfielder Brad Davis, who led the league in assists with 16. Nowak is aware the Dynamo will be dangerous from set pieces with someone of Davis’ quality whipping in inviting balls at will. But the Union are prepared for that.
“We don’t want to give them free kicks around the box,” said Nowak, who coached D.C. United to MLS Cup success in 2004. “You have to be in a good position and not give away fouls in certain parts of the field. We did a pretty good job at this in previous games against Houston.”
Paunović on the prowl
According to Nowak, Serbian attacker Veljko Paunović — who is still recovering from a hamstring injury sustained in the 1-1 tie with Toronto FC on Oct. 15 — could be ready to play some part in the Union's playoff push.
The 34-year-old has been used in an advanced midfield role in the Union’s preferred 4-5-1 formation, proving to be a useful two-way player since his arrival in June. He has started 16 of the 17 games in which he’s appeared, scoring three goals and adding three assists.
“He’s a very experienced guy and the next few days will give us the answer to where we are with him,” Nowak said. “ We will make sure before he enters the field that he will be fully healthy.”