CHESTER, Pa. — You know they’re coming, but there’s little you can do about them: Houston Dynamo set pieces.
They were one of the major themes heading into the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between Houston and Philadelphia on Sunday night, and it took only five minutes for the Dynamo to leave their mark.
Brad Davis whipped in a ball which Houston right back Andre Hainault flicked with the back of his head past Philly goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón for a 1-0 advantage. It was the beginning of a long night of set-piece success for the Dynamo, who won countless head balls in the Union penalty area on their way to a 2-1 road win.
“People talk about it and talk about it, but our guys are relentless,” Davis said after the match. “Put a ball in there and guys make good runs. We had a couple of good chances to score goals on a few other ones.”
One of the reasons that Union manager Peter Nowak controversially fielded a new five-man defensive alignment against Houston was to have an extra body in the box to defend these balls. Stefani Miglioranzi, who commonly plays at defensive midfield, instead played in the middle of the back line and made several clearances on the night. But he couldn’t prevent Hainault’s early goal.
“They’re always a threat on set pieces,” Miglioranzi said. “We have to do better there. They got their trademark first goal in an instance like that. … Just do a little bit better defending those.”
But how exactly do you do it if you're Philadelphia?
“Look at some tape and really renew our commitment to being better on it and putting bodies on people,” defender Danny Califf said. “That’s the only thing we really can do at the moment. Brad Davis serves an incredible ball and we’re not going to be able to get our heads on every single one, and not allow them to get heads on ball.
“But the more difficult we make their headers, the more we can get bodies on people and the more we can make it difficult, the more to our advantage that is. You’re never going to be able to stop them completely. They’re too big and [Davis] serves too good of a ball. You try and minimize it as much as you can.”
But it’s not just the actual set pieces that is the problem. Mondragón feels that it starts with the actual fouls that create the set pieces.
“We know it’s one of the strongest points for Houston and on our first set piece we are giving a goal away,” he said. “[We have to] stay concentrated. Not committing stupid fouls near the area and being more attentive.”
Words will only go far in the second leg on Thursday night, as the Dynamo defend a slim aggregate-goal advantage at Robertson Stadium.
“People keep talking about trying not to give us these [set-piece goals],” Davis said. “But in a game, there’s going to be one or two chances for us to take and the guys did a good job to get on the end of them tonight.”