After two games, key defensive signings look to brighten playoff chances as the schedule dwindles down. That's the story for both teams heading into BBVACompass Stadium on Friday night.
While DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido continue to establish their presence in the Dynamo defense, Philadelphia Union reclaimed center back Carlos Valdés after a 2-year stint in South America. Paired with Ethan White, these central anchors sit in the middle of a stingy defense that is undefeated in their last 5 matches (2 wins, 3 draws).
With 27 points, Philadelphia sits on the cusp of the playoffs, tied for 5th (with Columbus). Houston, one game behind, remains in 9th with 22 points. Both teams understand how vital a full result will be on Friday night. Houston suffered a disastrous summer, going 1-2-6 over their last nine but look ready to crawl out of their rut. Philadelphia suffered equally as bad early in the year but, after several personnel changes, have seen the team improve to 4-4-1 over their previous nine matches.
This will be the second meeting of the year, following a 0-0 draw in Philadelphia from April. The two teams will meet one last time in September in what should prove to be critically significant in the waning weeks of the playoff chase. Since that listless draw in April, both teams have undergone considerable changes and the early-season match does little to prepare us for what to expect on Friday.
Philadelphia's often inflexible head coach John Hackworth was axed and has been replaced in the interim by Jim Curtin. Hackworth's managerial moves were felt as the team found themselves with a dearth of natural center backs through trades and questionable draft moves, opening the door for the return of Carlos Valdés.
In a somewhat confusing move, the Union recently picked up Algerian starting Goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi, who is expected to start over the club's current young and capable Zac MacMath (possibly on Friday, if M'Bolhi is judged fit). French midfielder Vincent Nogueira and Argentine Cristian Maidana have ruled the attacking midfield for Philadelphia after arriving in January together. The two have seen injury spells through the season but Maidana has impressed with 8 assists in 16 starts (placing him 3rd in League Leaders) and Nogueira has been important in linking the team's attack down the field. Midfielder Maurice Edu, seen as hit-or-miss when he arrived on loan from Stoke City, has proven very much a hit after an All-Star-caliber season saw the US international notch 3 goals and 2 assists while playing as defensive midfielder.
In the attack, Sébastian Le Toux has rebounded from a poor 2013 season and found the net ten times placing himself among the League Leaders and echoing his 2010 and 2011 form. Along with Conor Casey, the counter attack has focused on the pair to score goals.
Taken together, it would seem as if Philadelphia have filled their gaps and are ready for a deep playoff push but the statlines tell a different story. New head coach Curtin seems to favor a strict counter-attack strategy and this was on full display in last weekend's match versus Montreal at PPL Park. After a Le Toux goal in the 12' minute, Philadelphia gave up 68% of the match's possession, absorbing the attack from Montreal, who sit dead last in all 19 MLS teams. Opting for the counter, Union's backline is now responsible for starting the attack - a new shift in their role from earlier in the year.
Choosing to hold 32% possession at home may be a valid strategy against Montreal, but against the current Dynamo squad, one might venture it is a risky proposition on the road. If Houston can trigger the same dominant performance they did against DCU two weeks ago, the midfield core of Davis, Clark, and Boniek should do well to disrupt the backline passing of Philadelphia (who recorded a season-low 60% pass completion against Montreal). Luis Garrido has also demonstrated an authoritative control of midfield and should do well to break up the counter attacks from Danny Cruz, Le Toux, and Nogueira.
Regardless of Curtin's instructions, the Union are apt to play on the counter after going an exhausting 120 minutes against FC Dallas in the US Open Cup Semifinal Tuesday night in Dallas. Nighttime temperatures in the 80s looked to have gassed both teams and Extra Time was filled with errant passes, low-energy movements, and a lack of concentration. Philadelphia fielded a near-full strength squad and it paid off as they bested FCD 4-3 on PKs to reach the Final. That effort, however, may prove costly as the team will have another go in the Houston humidity against a team that could prove punishing when given possession.
That is, if Houston can find the precision to punish. As we saw against DC, a dominant possession-heavy game does not mean anything unless you can score, even if it's in stoppage time. What is certain is that the Dynamo will now embark on the final 12 games of their season -- all of which are against Eastern Conference opponents. Further, seven of those games are against the four teams directly ahead of us as we push for the 5th place cutoff (2 games with Chicago, Columbus, and Philadelphia; 1 game against New England). These remaining games are ever-growing in importance and the home matches, especially, are becoming must-win.
One other thing that should give overconfident Houston fans pause: the last time Philadelphia have failed to get a result against an Eastern Conference opponent was May 17th versus New England. Since then, they've recorded 3 wins and 2 draws against conference foes. Heading into the most important stretch of the season for the Dynamo, they would do well to be just as stubborn.
Houston hosts Philadelphia Union Friday, August 15th at 8:00PM CDT. The match will be broadcast nationally on NBC Sports Network.