HOUSTON - For his last trick, Peter Nowak put out an opportunistic lineup and prayed it'd make him a footballing wizard.
Then again, the Union boss was left with little choice, his club had to pull a rabbit out of a hat if it had any chance of advancing after the second leg of a two-game conference semifinal series last night.
Needing to go on the offensive in order to rebound from a 2-1 deficit in the aggregate goal series, Nowak's 4-3-3 formation consisted of forwards Sebastien Le Toux, and draftmates Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga on the attack. It marked the first time ever that both Mwanga and McInerney were paired to start a match.
In the end, it was all for naught as the Dynamo defeated the Union, 1-0.
Last night also saw the return of midfielder Veljko Paunovic to the lineup, given the freedom to roam the dry, dusty football pitch at the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium. Paunovic had been out since the Oct. 8 match against Seattle after sustaining a right hamstring injury.
It was a lineup that, on paper, threatened to bring an offensive rogue wave, one that Houston veteran forward Brian Ching admitted he was wary of suiting up against.
"The pressure they brought in the second half of [Sunday's match at PPL Park], if that's what we are going to see from them [last night] then we are in for a long one," said Ching before the game. "We need to put them away, we need to score. I think if we score first it'll kill a lot of their momentum still riding from the first game."
Fortunately for the Dynamo, Ching took those words to heart and, in stoppage time of the first half, headed home the eventual game-winner off a 40-yard free kick from set-piece maestro Brad Davis, sending the orange-clad crowd of 24,749 into a frenzy.
It was Houston's 100th win all-time and it was fueled by Davis and his ability to accurately place a cross, corner or free kick.
Houston now moves on to face Sporting Kansas City on Sunday in the conference final.
As for the Union? Well, it'll just have to commence to "Doop for the Cup" in 2012.
"These guys are very young, and we can't rush things like we did tonight," said Nowak. "I think there were a lot of instances on the field even after we made the substitutions we just couldn't find the fluidity of the game."
The Union needed to score two goals just to tie the series on aggregate. A daunting task for a team that scored two goals or more in the second half just five times this season in matches against Chicago (May 21), Toronto (May 28), Chivas USA (June 25), New England (Sept. 7) and Seattle (Oct. 8).
"We can press them all we want but the fact of the matter is, regardless of any team you're playing against, coming back from two goals in a playoff atmosphere is tough, real tough," said Paunovic, who added he "felt great" in his 66 minutes on the pitch.
"It's tough to climb out of the hole we put ourselves in," he said, "but I am happy for my teammates. We are a young team that played against a veteran team with playoff experience and we stood our ground; there is nothing to be upset about."
The second-half entries of Freddy Adu, Justin Mapp and Roger Torres in the 66th minute did little to add additional pressure. Adu had the Union's best chance in the 87th minute when he broke into the 18-yard box and took a low rip that just missed goalkeeper Tally Hall's far post.
To call this match physical would be an understatement as there were 13 fouls in the second half alone. Carlos Valdes and Gabriel Farfan each picked up yellow card cautions, the latter earning his second of the series.
"They are a big team, they are a rough team and I think that to bang us up was their game plan," said defender Sheanon Williams. "It's frustrating, man, because I firmly believe we are a better team. And I firmly believe that in the first half we outplayed them, and to give up that first goal was killer. We dug ourselves into a hole not just on the pitch, but mentally, too."
It wasn't unrealistic for Nowak to think the Union could win. He did his best to put the right pieces in place.
But last night, he reached the bottom of his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. And came up empty.
"Listen, we accomplished the goal we started out in the beginning of season which was to make the playoffs," said Nowak. "Tonight just proved that we still have a lot to work on.
"I think we had the right pieces in place tonight, just sometimes it still doesn't come out the way you want it to. It's tough, but you know, that's soccer."