Union newcomer Danny Cruz enjoys surreal return to RFK

Danny Cruz in Union gear

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WASHINGTON – Long before the chaotic final minutes of Sunday’s Eastern Conference showdown between rivals Philadelphia Union and D.C. United, Danny Cruz stepped onto a familiar field in an unfamiliar uniform.

Later, Cruz would admit that it was surreal to be playing against a team that he had been a member of just a few days earlier. But, at that moment, the newest member of the Union happily soaked in the player introductions at RFK Stadium.

“It was kind of funny,” said Cruz, who was traded from D.C. to Philly for Lionard Pajoy on Thursday. “Before the game when they said my name, D.C. fans gave me a good clap. And so did [Union fans]. So I tried to go around the whole stadium.

“It’s all happening so quick,” he added. “But I’m proud to be wearing this badge now and I’m proud of the result.”

Cruz wasn’t on the field for all of the late-game drama in Sunday’s 1-1 draw – which included three ejections, an own goal and a missed penalty kick. But he was there in the first half when the Union took a 1-0 lead and created most of the game’s scoring chances.

Cruz, who was deployed on the Union’s three-man front line along with Jack McInerney and Freddy Adu, exhibited good pace on the right wing and showed the kind of hustle Philly fans will certainly love.

“Danny played well,” Union interim manager John Hackworth said. “For him to come in, it was an extremely emotional game for him obviously. But he did what he needed to do.”

Cruz appeared to be hurt when he came out of the game in the 57th minute. But the 22-year-old said afterwards that he was just suffering from minor leg cramps, and Hackworth noted that he was planning on taking him out after 60 minutes anyway.

Still, even though he’s completely healthy and already feeling at home with his new club, Cruz knows there’s still some work to do as he prepares for Philly’s next game this Friday against Real Salt Lake at PPL Park (7:30 pm ET, NBC Sports Network).

“I don’t feel out of my element,” Cruz said. “But there are a few things I have to get used to because a 4-3-3 is a lot different than a 4-4-2.”

On Sunday, though, he was mostly thinking about how weird it was to be in the visiting locker room at RFK Stadium. Players who get traded, after all, don’t usually face their old teams just a few days later.

“It was kind of emotional,” he said. “Nick DeLeon’s a real good buddy of mine, so before the game, he said, ‘I’d love to trade jerseys with you.’ It was kind of surreal. Him and I grew up playing together and to be able to switch jerseys is kind of special for me.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.