By JOEY SAMUEL
Coming into the second leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal clash with the Philadelphia Union, the Houston Dynamo knew all they needed to do to advance was to keep a clean sheet.
They did that and more Thursday night, as Brian Ching got on the end of yet another Brad Davis free kick and the Dynamo defended brilliantly to seal a 1-0 win and a spot in the Eastern Conference final.
In the team's final game at Robertson Stadium before moving to a brand-new facility next year, the Dynamo shut down a Union team that came out with numerous attacking options to begin the game. Jack McInerney, Sebastien Le Toux, Veljko Paunovic, and Danny Mwanga all started for Philadelphia in yet another new-look formation.
While the Union came out strong, Houston took Philly's early momentum away with strong defensive play led by Defender of the Year candidate Geoff Cameron. The Union were unable to find an early equalizer that would have given them momentum.
Instead, it was Houston who broke the deadlock with the last play of the first half when Brad Davis sent in a perfect cross from a free kick during added time. Brian Ching rose above the Union defense and headed it past goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon to give the Dynamo a massive aggregate lead at the half, which would prove too much to handle in the end.
"That's what you aim for," Ching said. "It was a great performance from the guys tonight, another shutout. Hopefully we can continue playing well and make it to the final."
The Union were forced to throw everything forward in the second half. Peter Nowak made a triple substitution in the 67th minute, bringing on Freddy Adu, Justin Mapp, and Roger Torres in a desperate attempt to get his team back in the game.
Houston held strong, though, clogging the passing lanes and holding onto the ball as long as they could when able. The 3-1 aggregate deficit would prove insurmountable for Philadelphia.
Once again, Brad Davis left an undeniable mark on the game and continued to strengthen his case for this year's MVP award. His trademark free kicks accounted for two of his team's three goals throughout the series, including the only goal Thursday.
"It comes down to delivery," said Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear. If you don't have a guy who can deliver the ball, you get nowhere. The delivery from Brad (Davis) was excellent, and Brian (Ching) got a pretty good run into the box.
"It wasn't just that," Kinnear said. "There were a couple other times that we were dangerous, so you have to give Brad credit for putting the ball in the right spots, but you also have to give the guys credit for making determined runs."
Houston advances to a conference final for the first time since 2009, when they fell to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference championship game. The Dynamo have now qualified to a conference final in four of the last six years.
For Philadelphia, the loss is disappointing, especially considering their inability to deal with Houston's set pieces, which was a clear strength for the Dynamo heading into the series. But their sophomore campaign ends in much more successful fashion than last year's, having finishing in second-to-last place in the East during their inaugural 2010 season.
"I think there are a lot of things to be proud of," said coach Peter Nowak. "I told them in the locker room that maybe it wasn't our year. Things need to be corrected, and we have a whole preseason to do it."
The Dynamo will now travel to Livestrong Sporting Park to face Kansas City in the Eastern Conference Final. Houston's last loss, ironically, was to Sporting Kansas City, all the way back on September 10.
"Kansas City is an extremely tough team," Ching said. "They are playing some great stuff right now and are one of the best teams in the league. They are also playing at home, which can be extremely difficult for us.
"Having said that, we are a team that is on a roll, a team that defensively seemed to find our rhythm, and we are scoring goals too," Ching said. "We are going to continue this run, and I would love to see this team make it to the final."