A budding rivalry between D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union was given an extra spark this week when the two sides swapped players just days before their meeting at RFK Stadium. Shipped up Interstate 95 was 22-year-old midfielder Danny Cruz, while veteran forward Lionard Pajoy found himself headed to the nation’s capital.
The winner in this trade won’t be decided in Sunday’s game (5 p.m., NBCSN), but it’s safe to say the spotlight will shine brightest on those two players.
In the broader picture, though, this match is the beginning of a crucial stretch for D.C. of five games in 13 days. United (11-8-3) actually have fallen out of the projected playoff field for the first time in months, dropping behind the Montreal Impact (11-13-3) on the total goals tiebreaker. But considering United have a whopping five games in hand, it’s far from time to panic.
Pajoy likely won’t be the only player making his RFK debut for United — recently acquired left back Mike Chabala seems poised to start after an up-and-down outing in his D.C. initiation at Sporting Kansas City last weekend. In Thursday’s paper, my profile of Chabala explored his early roots in the beautiful game and his rapid adjustment to a new team and city.
After rallying midseason under interim coach John Hackworth, the Union have leveled off in recent weeks, dropping two in a row and three of four.
Even with a surge in scoring since the firing Peter Nowak, Philadelphia still has found net just 23 times in 21 games. Much of the blame for that clip, in fact, was heaped on Pajoy, who scored a disappointing five goals in 20 games (16 starts) after being brought in to replace to production of departed All-Star Sebastien Le Toux.
I’m expecting Cruz to step in on the right flank in the Union’s 4-3-3 formation, pushing Freddy Adu to the left. Jack McInerney, returning from suspension, should start at striker with playmaker Michael Farfan on top of the midfield triangle.
Although onetime MLS Best XI selection Bakary Soumare made his Union debut in a 3-1 loss to Chicago last weekend, the return of Carlos Valdes from international duty to partner with Amobi Okugo means Soumare likely will return to the bench.
For Adu, the onetime child prodigy with United, the match will be his first game at RFK Stadium as a visitor. My story on Adu in Friday’s print edition documented his evolution since leaving D.C. in 2006.
Here is the starting lineup I see Olsen rolling out tonight:
Hamid; Korb, McDonald, Dudar, Chabala; Najar, Kitchen, Boskovic, Pontius; De Rosario, Pajoy
It could be difficult to take Nick DeLeon out of the lineup considering he scored last weekend and set up Chris Pontius‘ winner the match before that. So I also could see Branko Boskovic relegated to the bench, with Dwayne De Rosario dropping to midfield, Pontius sliding up top and DeLeon starting on the left. But ultimately, I think Olsen wants to get a good look at a De Rosario-Pajoy partnership sooner rather than later.
No matter where he lines up, having De Rosario back from a shoulder injury (just in time for his bobblehead night) is crucial. Although Maicon Santos (toe soreness) is doubtful, Hamdi Salihi is recovered from his viral infection and also is an option at forward.
In the back, the continued absences of Daniel Woolard (concussion) and Robbie Russell (plantar fasciitis) mean another match with Chabala and Chris Korb out wide, though Dejan Jakovic also is an option on the corners.