CHESTER, Pa. – For the Philadelphia Union, a whopping nine players made their MLS Cup Playoffs debut on Sunday.
But aside, perhaps, from seeing a little more physicality than they’re used to, none of them seemed overwhelmed by the big stage, even as Philly dropped a disappointing 2-1 decision to the Houston Dynamo in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at PPL Park.
The second leg of the series continues Thursday at Houston’s Robertson Stadium (8:30 pm ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes).
“For me personally, it felt the same,” said second-year striker Danny Mwanga, who got the start and played 76 minutes in his first MLS playoff game. “It felt like any other game. There was more excitement knowing we were playing a big game but there were no extra nerves or anything like that.”
Another second-year striker, Jack McInerney, said he tried to block out the significance of the moment after entering as a second-half sub.
“It was special to have it in Philly and it was a really good atmosphere,” said McInerney (above), who had a header hit off the crossbar late in Sunday’s loss. “But I haven’t thought about it too much. I’ll probably reflect on it after the season. Right now, I’m just looking forward to Houston.”
McInerney admitted the game – which featured six total yellow cards and a couple of shoving matches – got “a little rougher” than he thought. But most of the other youngsters expected the game to get heated and tried to prepare for that.
“We all knew Houston is one of the most physical teams in the league,” Mwanga said. “We knew we’d have to fight hard come playoff time to win and stay in the playoffs. We all knew it would be a fight, and our guys did a good job.”
In the first half, three defenders making their playoff debuts – Stefani Miglioranzi, Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan – all picked up yellow cards for reckless fouls. But they all managed to keep their composure after that to avoid getting sent off and putting their club in an even deeper hole – which was especially important since the Union had no defensive replacements on their bench.
“We’ve got to be a little bit settled down with [the yellow cards] so early,” Union manager Peter Nowak said. “But I think the game settled down after that and I think the referee did a good job to settle it down. There were a couple of moments in the second half that got a little heated. But that’s the playoffs and you have to expect that. And I think we did a good job with that.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.