CHESTER, Pa. – Considering the Philadelphia Union hold a 2-0-2 all-time record against the Houston Dynamo, it would appear Philly might have a distinct advantage over Houston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But when the first leg of the series kicks off Sunday at PPL Park (5 pm ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes), Philadelphia manager Peter Nowak hopes that statistic is the furthest thing from his players’ minds.
“For us, it’s important to scratch the idea that we never lost to these guys in two years,” Nowak said. “It’s important we look at the series in terms of getting the best out of our team.”
Part of the reason Nowak rejects the notion that past results vs. Houston might give his team the edge Sunday is because how well Philly’s opponent has been playing of late.
One of the hottest teams in the league, the Dynamo roll into Sunday’s game unbeaten in their last six, sporting a 4-0-2 record in that span. The Union, meanwhile stumbled into the playoffs with a tie and a loss in their last two contests.
“We have to understand they’re coming in with a lot of confidence,” Union center back Danny Califf said. “For us, it’s going to be important to look back at the way we played them and how we were able to break them down.”
One player Califf and company will particularly have their eyes on is Brad Davis, Houston’s MVP candidate who finished the regular season with a league-leading 16 assists.
Fellow 2011 all-stars Tally Hall, Geoff Cameron and Corey Ashe have all been vital to Houston’s success but Davis is the engine that makes the Dynamo purr.
“We’re going to try to keep the ball off his foot as much as possible,” Califf said. “He’s a tremendous player. He’ll find the ball regardless but it’s important for us to try to deny service to him. When he does get the ball, it’s really important for us in the back to really have a hold of where guys are – where [Carlo] Costly is, where [Brian] Ching is, where Calen Carr is – because those are the targets he’ll be looking to pick out.”
Califf, who will be making his sixth MLS Cup playoff appearance, also spoke of the importance of playing with emotion but also being able to challenge it.
For the Union, the playoffs represent a new frontier. And while their regular-season success against the Dynamo certainly shows they’re capable of moving on to the Eastern Conference finals, how they react to the postseason pressure will be far more telling of how deep of a run they’ll be able to make.
“It’s all about emotion and desire in the playoffs,” Califf said. “You need to match the other team’s and exceed the other team’s before soccer even comes into play.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org