CHESTER, Pa. – With a week to prepare for the Philadelphia Union’s first MLS Cup playoff game, Peter Nowak decided to do a little experimenting.
In an effort to contain Houston’s efficient offense in Sunday’s first-leg Eastern Conference semifinal game at PPL Park, the Philly manager put five players on the backline, adding Stefani Miglioranzi to the normal starting quartet of Danny Califf, Carlos Valdés, Gabriel Farfan and Sheanon Williams.
But the move didn't work quite as planned, as the Union gave up two first-half goals and then failed to come back in the second half despite throwing a lot more offensive numbers forward. The 2-1 defeat puts the Union down a goal in the aggregate series heading into the second leg game on Thursday in Houston.
“It was something that we’ve been working on this week and wanted to implement because we thought it would help us play a solid game and go into the second [leg] of this series in a good state,” Union defensive midfielder Brian Carroll told MLSsoccer.com. “Maybe it didn’t work out how we planned in the first half. We made some adjustments and pushed the game a little bit. It worked in our favor, but we just weren’t able to put the tying or leading goal in. Now we just have to go down and win the second [leg] in Houston.”
Nowak explained that he hoped the new formation – which he hadn’t really used at any other point this season – would also allow fullbacks Williams and Farfan to get even further down the wings than usual and spur the offense from the outside.
But the manager agreed that the team was missing something in the first half as Houston scored off a set piece from Brad Davis to Andre Hainault and then on a through ball from Brian Ching to Calen Carr.
“We decided to go this way not only from a defensive standpoint, but also from an offensive standpoint so we could push a little higher both guys on the wings,” Nowak said. “But I think we weren’t balanced well in the first half and there was a lot of easy passes that didn’t go to the wing. And it was easy to put some passes together for them.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the lineup was the inclusion of Miglioranzi, who last started on Sept. 7 and has been mostly used as a role player this season. It was the first-ever playoff appearance for the 34-year-old Brazilian, who played something of a sweeper role between center backs Califf and Valdés.
“It was definitely different, but we were comfortable with it,” Miglioranzi said. “We had Peter explain the reasoning for it. He saw how they played as a team and we thought we’d get a little advantage because there wouldn’t be much of a threat behind us if we had five people in the back. All in all, I think it worked out pretty well. Maybe in the second goal, there was a hint of offsides that caught us on a break and then it was a trademark set piece for the first one.”
At halftime, Nowak went back to a more standard formation, pushing Miglioranzi into the central midfield and then later subbing in striker Jack McInerney and attacking midfielders Roger Torres and Freddy Adu to give the club a far more offensive look.
But despite a total of 10 shots on goal and heavy pressure through most of the second half, the Union could not find the equalizer.
“We made too many naïve mistakes in the first half and it’s difficult to overcome that,” Nowak said. “But we still created chances. We had enough chances to put the ball in the net to tie the game and maybe win it.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.