Head to Head: Philadelphia vs. Houston (image)
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Head-to-Head Breakdown: Philadelphia vs. Houston

Faryd Mondragón has been a revelation for Philly. The Colombian has proved dependable as the last line of defense throughout the season, and the Union certainly missed him when he was out for almost a month with a fractured finger. The veteran has been in fine form joining MLS from the Bundesliga. In 27 games, he has conceded only 28 goals, and has been on the losing side just eight times so far for the Union. Mondragón is also an accomplished one-on-one specialist, and came up big in the recent contest with New York.




There will certainly be a fine display of goalkeeping talent on show in the series, with Houston’s Tally Hall on the opposite net of fellow All-Star Mondragón. Hall has proved himself well-equipped to deal with all the pressures of professional soccer in his first full season. He started all 34 games in league play and has excelled. His supreme shot-stopping ability could be the difference between the sides as the youngster, who previously played in Denmark, looks to make his mark in his first ever playoff campaign.

The experienced Danny Califf has forged a superb partnership with Carlos Valdés in the heart of Philadelphia’s defense, one that tied for the fifth-best defense in goals against and lost just eight times in 2011 — only Seattle and LA dropped fewer. With Mondragón as the marshal, the Union backline has barely had an off day. They've conceded more than two goals just once, on Sept. 7 in a thrilling 4-4 draw with New England. Overall they have looked solid and dependable, and all four defenders are comfortable in possession. Looking calm and unflappable in the playoffs will prove a valuable asset.




With the towering presence of Geoff Cameron, the Dynamo have a born leader who will battle Philly forward Sébastien Le Toux for every aerial ball and try to stop the flow of the Union attack. Other able defenders surround Cameron, such as Bobby Boswell, Corey Ashe and Canadian international Andre Hainault, who all contributed to the refurbished Dynamo’s effort. The pace of Hainault and Ashe will help to combat the Union’s surges forward, and they have plenty of experience, with Boswell wining two Supporters’ Shields and the MLS Defender of the Year in 2006.

Philly’s vibrant midfield has been superb all season long, setting up and creating goal scoring opportunities aplenty. Rookie Michael Farfan has been in inspired form, Brian Carroll adds a veteran presence and with the experience of Justin Mapp on the wing, they have a unique blend that has worked incredibly well for Pter Nowak’s side. The experienced Veljko Paunovic has also provided a great link between the midfield and attack, and his presence in the playoffs would be huge, although he is a doubt for the series. The Union’s pace and skill in the middle third of the pitch is certain to have Houston worried.



The centerpiece of Houston’s midfield is without a doubt the hugely talented Brad Davis. The Dynamo winger has proved invaluable to his team offensively this season, recording a league-high 16 assists. His pinpoint delivery from set pieces makes any opponent wary of giving free kicks away, which gives his teammates more license to take defenders on. Elsewhere in the midfield, Adam Moffat proved a superb acquisition from Portland, as the industrious Scotsman has provided a bite to the Dynamo midfield while also showing a scoring touch with an absolute beauty from 40 yards against LA in the season finale. If Moffat can break the play up and get Danny Cruz and Davis involved, then it could prove to be the downfall of the Union.

The Union certainly have a whole host of attacking options up front, with Le Toux the leading light after a superb month of September in which he scored seven goals in six games. The Frenchman is certainly not on his own as an attacking threat; the Union have Danny Mwanga and Freddy Adu, both of whom have chipped in at different times of the year. The Union have relied on their counterattacking style of play to cut teams open time after time, playing just one up top and looking for runners. With a capable defense behind them, their attackers can surge forward in numbers when given the chance.



The forward position has been somewhat of a problem for Houston this season, and seeing  former Dynamo man Dominic Oduro tear up the nets for Chicago this season must be tough to swallow. However, they're hoping Honduran striker Carlo Costly, who arrived in Houston in August, can go on a run after finally scoring his first goal in the season finale against LA. The aging Brian Ching is still a threat, but his total of five goals scored this season is his lowest since his rookie year. Calen Carr and rookie Will Bruin won’t scare the Union defense too much.

Nowak has vast experience when it comes to the playoffs, both as a player and a manager. Having won the MLS Cup with D.C. United in 2004, Nowak knows how to negotiate the tricky terrain that is the postseason. In just their second season, Philadelphia have reinvented themselves as a side that, on their day, can beat anyone. Nowak's midseason acquisition has proved a massive hit, and moving Le Toux to a lone forward role from the flank allowed the Frenchman to flourish. More masterstrokes like this from Nowak are needed if the Union are to take the title to PPL Park.




Dominic Kinnear certainly has the experience to needed to win MLS Cups. He has won the trophy four times, as assistant coach with San Jose in 2001 and '03, and back-to-back as Houston head coach in '06 and '07. His pedigree speaks for itself: He is a no-nonsense manager who demands the utmost respect from his players for what he has achieved as a coach. His ability to fire his squad up for a playoff push is key. Kinnear revamped his side after missing out on the playoffs last year and put trust in the experienced core. This could prove to be yet another shrewd move.

The Union have an extremely strong squad. Players like Adu, Mwanga and midfield spark Roger Torres would demand a starting spot in most other MLS sides. Nowak has had the luxury of resting many of his attacking players – aside from Le Toux – towards the end of the year. He chose instead to rotate them to keep his charges fresh for the playoffs. The fact of the matter is, the Union have 15 to 16 players who could easily be starters, which bodes well for the unpredictability of playoff soccer.



Houston’s bench is not quite strong enough to worry Philadelphia; however, there’s a mix of experience and youthful promise. Former Indiana University striker Bruin got off to a flying start to the season, yet petered out. The Dynamo will hope to utilize him from the bench if they need a goal.

The Union have proved time and again how dangerous they are away from home. Their fluid, forward-thinking momentum has won them many fans across the league in just their second MLS season. Yet if Le Toux is not firing on all cylinders, you have to wonder where the goals will come from. Their experience in Mondragón and Califf at the back will be key in helping the younger stars through the rigors of postseason play. The form of their attackers is the key to this series.



Houston have a squad that have reveled in playoff success in the past. Experienced campaigners like Davis and Ching know how to get it done. However, the youthful exuberance of the Union may run them ragged at times. Moffat's play is crucial in the center of the park, as is Cameron in stopping the Union inflicting their fast, counterattacking game plan. If they keep it solid, Davis is always dangerous from set pieces, so the Dynamo will want to keep it tight and rely on dead-ball situations.