WASHINGTON – As if Sunday’s match between D.C. United and Philadelphia didn’t already contain enough intrigue given the clubs’ budding rivalry, close proximity and playoff implications, Thursday’s trade sending midfielder Danny Cruz to Philadelphia for Lionard Pajoy and an international roster spot kicked things up a notch.
Toss in the fun underlying tidbit that Freddy Adu will be making his first appearance at RFK Stadium since 2006 and the fact that Sunday's match will be nationally televised on NBC Sports Network (5 pm ET, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), and emotions should be high on both sides come kickoff.
“The timing, I don’t know if it’s good or bad.” United coach Ben Olsen said following Friday’s training. "Ultimately, the trade wasn’t about this weekend, it’s about us getting better.”
Pajoy, who trained with United (11-8-3, 36 points) Friday, said he was surprised by the news that he was traded. Both Pajoy and Cruz could see immediate minutes against their old clubs.
“I’m ready, prepared and waiting for the words of the coach," Pajoy said Friday through translator Sebastian Salazar. "If they need me on Sunday, I’ll be ready."
Playing in his first MLS season, the 31-year-old Pajoy scored five goals and assisted on two more for Philadelphia (7-12-2, 23) after spending nine seasons playing for various Colombian sides, most recently Itagüí Ditaires.
“He looked good,” Olsen said of Pajoy. “I think he’s excited for a new start and we’re excited to have him. … I think he fits our system better [than Philly’s], but that’s to be determined, isn’t it?”
Ultimately, Olsen said he’s hoping for one of D.C.’s many No. 9s to settle into a consistent starting form. Currently, Pajoy, Hamdi Salihi, Maicon Santos and Long Tan all are vying for minutes opposite captain Dwayne De Rosario up top.
“[The trade] definitely took us by surprise," said United's Chris Pontius. "It’s sad to see Cruz go, but we’re trying to get Pajoy integrated into the group as quickly as possible. He’s a strong forward who can hold up the ball and he’s physical, so he’s not necessarily a guy a lot of center backs want to play against.”
Adu’s return simply adds another layer of anticipation to a match that jumpstarts United’s five-games-in-14-days gauntlet.
“He’s obviously a kid that we know and has special qualities on the ball and can produce some great plays,” Olsen said of D.C.’s former teenage prodigy. “You make sure you don’t give him a lot of freedom and time to do what he wants to do.”
United now are hoping they’ve acquired some special qualities of their own in the veteran Pajoy to help a side that’s scored two goals in their previous four matches.
“This is a team with more experience and history,” Pajoy said. “The expectations here are much higher than in Philadelphia. That’s the reason I’m here – to win a title.”