Former Philadelphia Union forward Lionard Pajoy stands on Major League Soccer's marquee stage with D.C. United
It's been a tough enough year already for Union fans who hoped back in March for a second straight trip to the playoffs. Instead, they got an insult on top of their injury.
Former Philadelphia Union forward Lionard Pajoy stands on Major League Soccer’s marquee stage with D.C. United
WASHINGTON – It's been a tough enough year already for Union fans who hoped back in March for a second straight trip to the playoffs.
Instead, they got an insult on top of their injury. The Union aren't in the postseason, but it's surrounding Philadelphia from two sides.
Major League Soccer's representatives of D.C. and New York renewed the most-played series in league history Saturday night, contesting their 70th meeting across all competitions. Even though the MetroStars name is long gone, the enmity built up over 17 years of fierce clashes is as strong as ever.
To make matters even worse for Philadelphia, both sides' attacks featured a player who once called PPL Park home.
For New York, it was Sébastien Le Toux. To the astonishment of American soccer's chattering classes, Red Bulls manager Hans Backe started Le Toux over red-hot Kenny Cooper, preferring Le Toux's pace to Cooper's power.
And for D.C., it was the man who Philadelphia fans hoped would replace Le Toux as the Union's top scorer, Lionard Pajoy. As we all know, Pajoy was indeed the Union's top scorer on the season when he was traded to United in August – and continued to hold that title well after the deal. But in every other way, he failed to live up to expectations.
Pajoy started in Saturday's game and put in a performance that looked plenty familiar. He worked hard and got himself in dangerous positions often, but failed repeatedly to get the ball into the net. That included a glaring miss in the 86th minute, when he fired wide right on a good look from just outside the 18-yard box.
That said, there were strange moments all over the field. Both scores in the 1-1 draw were own goals: New York's Roy Miller volleyed a D.C. cross into his own net, and United goalkeeper Bill Hamid brought the ball down over his own goal line after catching a header by Dax McCarty.
In addition, D.C.'s Chris Pontius had a penalty kick saved, and Andy Najar was sent off for throwing the ball at the referee after being booked for a foul.
Was it the pressure of the playoffs? Maybe. It could have just been two teams with weaknesses that have been clear for some time.
But oddly enough, the mental side of postseason soccer didn't get to Pajoy. He's been down this road before, since the league in his native Colombia also determines its champion with a playoff.
"I think it's fine, the way they do the system here," Pajoy told me through an interpreter. "I likeit."
Pajoy has also made an easy transition to life in Washington. He called United manager Ben Olsen "a player's coach," and praised him for having "evolved as a coach, even though he's still relatively young."
"From day one, it was an easy transition," Pajoy said. "It's something I'm used to as a player, having played for many teams - it's part of the business."
I asked Pajoy if anything is different about playing in D.C. compared to Philadelphia. He noted the youth on the Union's roster, compared to the more experienced players who now surround him.
And he noted this, too, about United: "It's a team that is fighting for the championship."
A simple statement, yes, and true. But it was said with a sense of correlation between experience and stature.
Pajoy still keeps in touch with at least one of his former teammates, Union defender and captain Carlos Valdés. They talk often by phone, and their families live in the same complex in the Philadelphia area.
We forget sometimes that the nomadic nature of being a professional athlete leads can often to being apart from one's family for extended periods of time. It doesn't make things any better when you've moved everyone to a different country.
Pajoy admitted that "it's difficult" to be away from his family. But D.C. and Philadelphia are close enough that it's easy to get between the two cities on a regular basis.
"It helps that they are only two hours away, Pajoy said. "Every time I get the chance, I go up and see them."
Pajoy and his teammates head to Red Bull Arena on Wednesday for the series finale (8:00 p.m., NBC Sports Network). The circumstances will again be unusual, as northern New Jersey continues to recover from the damage wrought by Sandy. The storm forced Major League Soccer to reverse the venues of the two games, denying United a nominal home-field advantage from hosting the second leg.
But as New York fans know all too well, their team has never beaten D.C. in a playoff series. In fact, the MetroStars/Red Bulls have never beaten United in a playoff game, and there have been eight of them so far.
That history will weight on the minds of a lot of people who make the trek to Harrison, N.J., later this week. Pajoy, however, is focused solely on what will happen on the field.
"It's on the 11 players who are in the lineup that night," Pajoy said. "We need to play a hell of a game to get a result there. It's that simple."