The Union head into tonight’s second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Semifinals (8:30/ESPN2) against the Houston Dynamo down a goal. Outscore the Dyanmo by two goals in regulation and they’ll advance to the Conference Finals. Outscore the Dynamo by one goal in regulation and they’ll force a 30 minute overtime (there is no “golden goal”). If the two teams remain tied on aggregate after the 30 minute overtime then the winner will be determined by penalty kicks.
The real question heading into this match is what in the world is Peter Nowak going to do with his lineup? Honestly, it’s a total crapshoot. Part of me thinks that he pencils in the eight regulars (Faryd Mondragon, Sheanon Williams, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Gabriel Farfan, Brian Carroll, Michael Farfan, and Sebastien Le Toux) and then in a fit of Jackson Pollack-esque inspiration he throws three random names on the team sheet.
If I were smarter and had more business savvy I’d market WWPD (“What Would Peter Do”) rubber bracelets and t-shirts. At this point, asking What Would Peter Do, as it relates to his choice of players and formation, is just as existential a question as the original WWJD.
The guy has had tremendous success wherever he’s been. He knows what he’s doing. But what does it say about him (or me for that matter) that I wouldn’t put it past him, despite entering the game down a goal, to trot out a 6-3-1 and give never-been-used Joe Tait a starting nod?
I am done trying to guess what he’s going to do. All I know is that his team needs to find a way to score at least one more goal than Houston tonight. How would I go about doing that? Glad you asked.
As I mentioned, there are arguably three open spots in the starting eleven. I can say with 100% certainty that I would not start Stefani Miglioranzi. Can I coach, or can I coach? Beyond that, you need to balance the need to score goals with the reality that you really can’t afford to concede any either.
As much as I’d love to let Freddy Adu and Roger Torres loose for 90 minutes, I think you’d be giving up too much defensively. If forced to start just one of those two, I’d opt for Torres. You won’t find a bigger Adu fan than me, but I prefer Torres’ ability to pull the strings from the center of the pitch.
Adu is an ideal weapon to bring off the bench in the 65th minute. You can plug him in along the flank and let him utilize his ability to break defenders down 1 v. 1 and provide dangerous service into the box.
So, with Torres in my starting lineup I have two spots left. As frustrating as he is, I’d give Justin Mapp another start. It’s a roll of the dice, but he could just as easily be invisible for 70+ minutes, or he could score two golazos and singlehandedly push the Union into the Conference Finals. He’s that hit-or-miss.
The third and final spot comes down to the ineffective Danny Mwanga, the returning from injury Veljko Paunovic, and the diminutive Jack McInerney. Much has been written about the height advantage the Dynamo have over the Union. This disparity was on display Sunday when the Union stubbornly insisted on trying to beat the Dynamo back line with balls in the air.
Yes, Jack McInerney flicked a header off of the crossbar on Sunday, but I’d rather take my chances against the Dynamo by keeping the ball on the ground. Assuming they make a concerted effort to keep the ball on the ground I’d start McInerney and bring Mwanga off of the bench. Although, Nowak loves Paunovic, so don’t be surprised to see him start.
Tactically, I’d deploy these eleven starters in a standard 4-4-2. I’d give Gabe Farfan and Sheanon Williams the green light to get forward with the understanding that marking Brad Davis and shutting down his service is of the utmost importance.
Finally, Robertson Stadium is an absolute nightmare. You’ll see all kinds of lines across the field (soccer lines, football lines, field hockey lines, rugby lines, badminton lines, clothing lines, etc.), which make for a total television eyesore.
Aesthetics aside, the field is incredibly narrow. As a Union fan you’ve got to hope that the narrow pitch means that Union will be less vulnerable to the sort of heels-on-the-touchline width provided by Davis.
If the Union have any chance of advancing they’ll need to keep the ball on the ground, win the aerial battles in their own box, limit Houston’s set pieces, and finish. Dynamo keeper Tally Hall was credited with ten saves on Sunday. The U need to find a way finish those chances.
Starting Lineup I’d Like to See – As detailed above: Mondragon, Williams, Califf, Valdes, G. Farfan, M. Farfan, Carroll, Torres, Mapp, Le Toux, McInerney.
Final Score Prediction: I cannot get a read on this game. The Union are 2-0 all-time in Houston. Sure, there’s pressure on them, but as a second-year franchise they are not expected to win this game. Maybe they come out loose and play some free-flowing soccer. I foresee a scenario where the Union play well, score an early goal, and then get caught going for it late. The game ends 1-1, and Houston advances 3-2 on aggregate.
The Toni Stahl Memorial Player Most Likely to See Red: N/A (retired for the playoffs)