The Philadelphia Union’s season came to an end Thursday night at Houston’s Robertson Stadium.
Union manager Peter Nowak believes it should have probably lasted at least a little bit longer.
“During this game, we weren’t the worst team,” Nowak told reporters following the Union’s 1-0 loss to the Dynamo in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal — which, combined with Houston’s 2-1 win in the first leg, eliminated Philadelphia from the MLS Cup playoffs.
WATCH HIGHLIGHTS: Houston 1, Philadelphia 0
“Houston didn’t overcome us with something we didn’t know,” Nowak continued. “They didn’t come with anything that showed they were a better team. I think in both games we played better.”
The Union manager admitted his team lacked some fluidity and patience in the second half when midfielders Justin Mapp, Freddy Adu and Roger Torres all entered the game — which he called a “good, hard lesson.”
But Nowak commended his club for their first-half performance, even though they had few dangerous looks on net. Danny Mwanga, starting for the first time in a league game alongside fellow second-year striker Jack McInerney, had the best scoring opportunities with a couple of long-range shots.
“I think we stretched them pretty good,” Nowak said. “The movement was very good. We just missed a couple of chances to deliver the ball faster from the wings. I think on a couple of chances, we should have done better. But no, the first half was very good in every facet of the game.”
All in all, Nowak was content with how his team played in their final game of a 2011 season that ended up surpassing most realistic expectations.
What he wasn’t happy with is what precipitated the only goal of Thursday’s game. Much to Nowak’s chagrin, defender Carlos Valdés was called for a foul in stoppage time in the first half, before Houston scored on a vintage Brad Davis free kick that found the head of Brian Ching.
It was the second set-piece goal of the series for Houston, and it gave them a commanding two-goal lead in the aggregate heading into the final 45 minutes.
“If a referee is giving a free kick after regular time and it’s a free kick that shouldn’t happen, you’ve got to figure out guys are going down and going down because they want to have a free kick,” Nowak said. “If you are the referee and you are supposed to be neutral, you’re supposed to recognize it wasn’t a foul in first place, the time is over, and let the team go back to the locker rooms and enjoy a 15-minute break.”
Union central defender Danny Califf said he didn’t see the foul called on Valdés but credited Davis for making the Union pay for it.
“He makes it easy for guys getting on the end of them,” Califf said of Houston's all-star midfielder. “He was certainly the difference-maker in this series. As a group, that’s going to be something we’ll look back on, and it’s going to be a good lesson.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.