When the whistle blew on the Unions season, a mixture of disappointment and frustration reigned. Needing just one goal to send the two-game aggregate series to overtime on Thursday, the young squad fell to Brad Davis and the superior Houston Dynamo, 1-0, in the second leg of the conference semifinals at Robertson Stadium.
Yet despite the questions concerning the teams sudden change in formation and coach Peter Nowaks controversial personnel decisions in the post season, neither told the full story of why the Union were sent home early.
They simply werent ready to take that next step. They werent the better team.
Theres a lot of things to be proud of with this group, coach Peter Nowak said. I told them in the locker room that maybe it just wasnt our year. We still have a lot of work in front of us to make sure it happens soon.
In the Unions first-ever playoff match, Nowak caused a buzz around the league when he changed his successful 34-week formula and put five men on the back line, as opposed to the usual four. Despite the defensive formation, Davis notched a key assist on a set piece and Calen Carr turned an offsides into a breakaway goal to give the Dynamo the 2-1 win.
On Thursday, Nowak found even more detractors when he pulled his leading scorer Sebastien Le Toux off the front line to midfield and tapped young strikers Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga to jump on the one-goal series deficit. It was a never-before-seen setup for the Union to start a contest and a curious move to say the least.
And though the lack of sustained pressure was a problem all night long for the Union, nothing was going to stop Davis. In the 42nd minute, with a set piece lined up far outside the Union box, Davis floated a picturesque pass that curled perfectly off the head of Brian Ching and through Faryd Mondragon for the goal.
It was a split-second summation of the series for the Union, who were defeated by a high-caliber of play. And like Mondragon on Chings goal, there was nothing the team could really do but watch it unfold.
Although Nowaks changes are ripe to be both questioned and criticized, ultimately, it wasnt what lost the Union the game and series. That honor lands on Houston's MLS assist-leader Davis and goalkeeper Tally Hall. With a hand in two of his teams three goals in the series, Davis, a candidate for the MLS Most Valuable Player, played to his reputation. Meanwhile, Hall made 15 saves in the two games, allowing just one slip past.
He was incredible, he was the difference-maker, Union captain Danny Califf said of Davis. You dont get 18 assists by not being a good player. He makes it easy for the guys on the end of his passes. He was the difference maker in this series and as a group, its something that will be a good lesson.
So when trying to explain how they dropped two consecutive games in bitter fashion, the Union dont have to look further than to their advancing counterparts.
Its a good, hard lesson for us to learn, Nowak said. For us, its about being inexperienced and young, and its a good, hard lesson.