After only two seasons, the Union advanced to the MLS Cup playoffs.
That’s quite an accomplishment for a young franchise. But they don’t want to stop. Not when there are larger goals.
The Union (11-8-15) finished in third place in the Eastern Conference and will host the Houston Dynamo. Philadelphia will then travel to Houston (12-9-13) next Thursday for the second leg of the conference semifinals.
The Dynamo are one of the hottest clubs in the league with a 4-0-1 mark in their final five regular-season games. Philadelphia is 2-0-2 against Houston over the past two seasons.
But throw those records out the window. This is a whole new beginning.
“The playoffs are more about battling,” Union defender Danny Califf said. “A lot of times, the prettiest soccer doesn’t come out. It’s the team that wants it the most.”
Manager Peter Nowak echoed similar thoughts.
“The playoffs, it’s not who is going to play nice and pretty,” Nowak said. “It’s who is going to win the series.”
Playoff fever: Union fans, players juiced
It’s going to be a hyped-up experience in Chester this weekend — and not just inside PPL Park.
The Commodore Barry Bridge will be decked out in “Go Union” banners and toll collectors will be sporting Union playoff T-shirts. There will also be a postgame party at Harrah’s Chester casino.
As much as the MLS playoff atmosphere is new to the area, there are a few Union players who find themselves in familiar territory. Six players — Danny Califf, Brian Carroll, Justin Mapp, Freddy Adu, Stefani Miglioranzi, Sebastien Le Toux — have been to the postseason before. And Califf, Carroll, Adu and Miglioranzi won titles.
“There’s more emotion, more urgency, and everyone is juiced,” said Califf. “I think we’re going to be ready.”
Injury report: Some forward thinking
Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, forward Danny Mwanga and backup keeper Zac MacMath are all ready to go for the Union.
However, veteran forward Veljko Paunovic is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game after missing the club’s regular-season finale with a strained right hamstring.
Nowak doesn’t think the injury is anything major, but also said that Paunovic isn’t training at full capacity right now.
Paunovic joined the Union on June 13 and scored three goals, while recording three assists in 16 starts. The Serbian logged 1,236 minutes.
These battles could decide Game 1
M Brad Davis vs. D Danny Califf
The scoop: Davis sets everything up for the Dynamo. Conversely, Califf is the guy who protects the backline for the Union. The defender is tough, gritty and experienced. Califf is fully aware of the job the defenders need to do — and he’ll have an eye on Davis all day.
M/D Geoff Cameron vs. GK Faryd Mondragon
The scoop: Cameron has scored five goals and has the potential to break out at any time. It will be Mondragon’s first playoff game as the Union keeper, and he’ll surely know where Cameron is on the field. Mondragon is back 100 percent healthy from a broken right ring finger.
M Sebastien Le Toux vs. GK Tally Hall
The scoop: Le Toux never stops hustling from the opening kickoff through the final whistle. If he can get an early goal and get the raucous crowd into the action, the Union will be tough to beat. Le Toux leads the club with 11 goals and nine assists.
What to watch
Le Toux, above, will be a marked man in Sunday’s game at PPL Park.
1. Houston will key on shutting down Union forward Sebastien Le Toux, who scored 10 goals over his final 12 regular-season games. Others must step up and fill the void if Le Toux is bottled up.
Second-year forward Danny Mwanga and attacking midfielder Freddy Adu should have more
opportunities to score.
2. Houston’s Brad Davis is one of the most dangerous players in MLS because of his tremendous passing ability. Davis had a league-high 16 assists and is at his best on set pieces — corner kicks and free kicks. The Union must keep him marked.
3. Philadelphia must control its emotion at the start. The Sons of Ben will be screaming, along with the rest of what is sure to be a sellout crowd at PPL Park. It’s the first home playoff game in franchise history and the Union need to maintain their poise.