It took less than 5 minutes for the Union to get off to the perfect start.
Sheanon Williams directs one of his trademark long throw-ins - which are now met with the clamorous cascade of "BOOM" from the Union faithful - at the 18-yard-box from just below midfield. The toss finds Sebastien Le Toux in the box directly in front of goal. A quick touch to turn himself, Le Toux gets off a shot. His blast smacks the crossbar but lands at the feet of teammate Danny Califf. Instinctively, the stalwart defender slots the ball toward the far post away from the goalkeeper, who can only helplessly watch the white sphere get enveloped in orange netting.
Time of goal/renewed confidence: 4 minutes, 21 seconds in the first half . . . of the regular-season opener.
The goal eventually led to a win, just the team's third on the road all-time. It also brought a wave of confidence like no other. Palpable on the field and in the locker room, the Union compiled a 6-3-2 record in its first 11 games of the season, which included road victories over Toronto FC (6-2) and Chicago (2-1).
For a time it wasn't all roses: There was a midseason slump complete with questionable starting lineups and a mind boggling inability to capitalize on the simplest of chances, but wrapped in that also was an eight-match unbeaten streak - a flat, lifeless, regular-season finale against Red Bull New York notwithstanding.
Through it all, the aspirations of making the playoffs has come to fruition.
So here we are. Two days from now, the Union will host the same club in which began its dream start. Some players (and coaches) have said that owning Houston (the Union are 2-0-2 all-time against the Dynamo) and opening its playoff campaign at PPL Park - a venue where the Union has lost only four times in its short history - is irrelevant in terms of the playoffs, but psychologically, I mean, really, somewhere beneath the surface of all that coach-speak, it must mean something, right?
"Oh it's huge," Califf said of the domination. "If we can get a good result against these guys I think it'll be massive for confidence. We match up with them pretty well and I think we're confident going in that we are going to do the things it takes to put ourselves in a good spot and in the right position to move on."
Sometime this afternoon, Houston will arrive in Philadelphia, boasting a six-match unbeaten string. Dynamo boss Dominic Kinnear has shuffled some pieces on his board, but it has been to the benefit of a club that has viewed each of those six matches as a playoff game. Narrowly edging the Union for the No. 2 seed in the East, Houston earned the luxury of hosting the pivotal second leg next Thursday (8:30 p.m., ESPN2). As mentioned, the Union has enjoyed a luxury of its own at home, but it's the goal count, not homefield advantage that's important in this one. The Union has scored 24 goals at home this season, more than half of its regular-season total (44), but the Dynamo at home has been nearly unstoppable, scoring 32 of its 45 goals this season at Robertson Stadium, en route to a 10-3-4 mark. Only top-seeded Los Angeles (12-0-5) has a better home record in the entire league and Real Salt Lake has the same mark as Houston.
"We have to play smarter and with more intensity in the first leg because the second leg can come back to bite you," Califf said. "I think the biggest thing is that you have to match the other team's intensity. The game is going to be quicker, it's going to be more emotional. I've been in a lot of these [types of] games via MLS playoffs or Open Cups, [U.S.] national team games or UEFA Cups and the one factor they have in common is that they are big games.
"It's important to get into the match early and get comfortable and enjoy it, because it's one of the few times in this sport and in MLS where the games really matter . . . so it's imperative that we get off to the right foot early because that will really set the tone for the rest of our [playoff] run."
WANTED: PLAYOFF GOALS
For those who have not had a keen eye on the MLS postseason until now, given the current fortunes of the Union, know that this is the first year the league has switched to a 10-team format, complete with a wild-card round. If you are looking for end-to-end soccer, you'll find it in some of these upcoming contests, but it probably will be devoid of high-scoring blowouts. According to a stat from the Elias Sports Bureau, an average of 2.6 goals per game has been scored in the 16-year history of the MLS postseason and that number drops to 2.2 in elimination matches like the one in Houston next Thursday. Case in point, the Red Bulls eliminated FC Dallas on Wednesday night by a score of (you guessed it), 2-0.
Good thing the Union back line is statistically one of the best in the league. Because judging by history, get ready for a defensive dogfight.
It's not the Union, but the following is still uniquely Philly. This season, the words "La Salle" and "soccer" have been as harmonious as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. On the college ranks, La Salle's women are having their best season in program history. Despite the end of an 11-match unbeaten streak, the nationally ranked Explorers (No. 25) remain undefeated (15-0-2 overall) heading into the regular-season finale at Atlantic 10 foe Fordham tonight (7:30). The A-10 playoffs begin in Dayton next week, with La Salle already locking up the No. 1 seed. Not to be outdone, the La Salle High boys' soccer team has terrorized Catholic League teams all season, compiling a 12-0-0 record and outscoring CL opponents 52-0. Its latest victim was Lansdale Catholic, flogged, 3-0, by the Explorers in the quarterfinals of the CL playoffs on Tuesday.
What: First leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals
Who: Houston (2) at Union (3)
When: Sunday, 5 o'clock
Where: PPL Park, Chester
On the web: Streaming online at MLSSoccer.com
Tickets: Limited seats available. Call ComcastTix (1-800-298-4200) or visit the Union website.
Regular-season records: Houston 12-9-13, (49 points); Union 11-8-15 (48 points)
Last time out: Houston's Geoff Cameron scored in the 84th minute to preserve a point at PPL Park and scratch the Union's chances of a return to the top of the Eastern standings.
For kicks: The Dynamo carries a six-match unbeaten streak to PPL Park, but they have never defeated the Union in each of the four previous meetings, with the Union holding a 2-0-2 edge . . . Houston brings a healthy corps with the exception of Cam Weaver, who had hip surgery 2 weeks ago . . . Players to watch are midfielder Geoff Cameron (five goals), who has played sound since a move late in the season to fullback, and speedy forward Brad Davis (16 assists), who is an expert at finding players in the box off the cross . . . This is the first MLS playoff appearance for goalkeeper Tally Hall. Hall has started all 34 matches for the Dynamo, compiling a 1.21 goals-against average and six shutouts . . . Houston's Brian Ching and the Union's Brian Carroll and Danny Califf were all part of the U.S. national team player pool from 2003-09 . . . Houston won the MLS Cup as an pseudo-expansion club in 2006 and 2007. But unlike the Union, which was built from scratch, the Dynamo relocated to Houston from San Jose before the 2005 season . . . Boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya is part owner of the club.
INJURY REPORT (As of Tuesday):
Out for the Union: Thorne Holder, GK (concussion); Levi Houapeu, FW (left ankle strain)
Doubtful: Veljko Paunovic, FW (right hamstring strain)
Questionable: Justin Mapp, MF (left quad strain)
Probable: Joe Tait, DF (right ankle sprain)
Out for Houston: Cam Weaver, FW (right hip surgery)