United finished third in the overall MLS standings and reached the Eastern Conference Finals with Lionard Pajoy leading the line. Would the same have happened if Danny Cruz was still on the roster instead?
We began our What If series this offseason by wondering how D.C. United would have fared without seeing Dwayne De Rosario suffer a PCL injury that kept him sidelined for most of the final two months of the season. We concluded that United still would have made the playoffs, but wouldn't have adapted the more conservative style that helped United embark on a long undefeated streak, and therefore probably wouldn't have been able to keep the New York Red Bulls off the scoreboard in order to win that playoff series.
That same conservative style wouldn't have been possible without Lionard Pajoy.
Since arriving in D.C. on Aug. 16, Pajoy started all 16 games (including playoffs) while generating three goals and two assists, including the lone goal in a match against his former team to start the undefeated streak that wouldn't end until that fateful trip to Houston. Pajoy's tireless work rate was often praised by Ben Olsen as the Colombian forward made it difficult for the opposing back line to maintain possession and control the tempo. He also gave United the option of using the long ball to bypass the midfield, using his quickness, strength, and positional awareness to chase down the ball and then hold off the opposition while his teammates advanced up the field.
Pajoy came to D.C. through a trade with the rival Philadelphia Union as United send popular young midfielder Danny Cruz up I-95. At the time, the trade wasn't very popular with United fans. In fact, out of 102 votes, not a single United fan was excited to see Pajoy arriving and Cruz departing when the trade went down (30% were opposed, 70% were unsure). But despite the age differential (Cruz is 22, Pajoy is 31), most of us have come around.
Olsen brought Pajoy to D.C. because he wasn't happy with this current crop of forwards. Maicon Santos was injured at the time, but wasn't a player that could be relied upon to give his maximum potential every match anyway. Hamdi Salihi didn't have the speed or work rate that Olsen valued, and Long Tan is, um, Long Tan. Pajoy gave the team something it didn't have before: a true hold-up forward.
The trade was made possible by United's excess capacity of wingers. When the trade went down, Chris Pontius, Andy Najar, and Nick DeLeon were all ahead of Cruz on the depth chart. The trade made sense for both teams. Cruz and Pajoy each started all of their new team's final 12 regular season matches, but neither would have started nearly that many had the trade been rejected. And while Cruz might be seen as having more upside, he wasn't a vital player for United at the time.
So how would things have been different? For one, Hamdi Salihi would have had to see more minutes following the injury to De Rosario. Some extra time on the field for Salihi might have translated into more goals scored for United, but the team probably would have allowed more goals also without having Pajoy's high pressure playing style on the field. The tactical adjustment wouldn't have been as successful without Pajoy on the roster. And so just like our conclusion in the What If piece on the De Ro injury, I think we can probably safely assume that our team still would have made the playoffs, but maybe wouldn't have finished in second place in the East.
But maybe we should pose this question a different way: At any point in the final two months of the season, did United really miss Cruz? Maybe he would have been a good energy option off the bench as a substitute, but I doubt he would have started more than one or two matches if he was still playing for D.C. I guess Cruz would have been a better replacement when Pontius got injured in the first leg of the Houston Dynamo series, but would United have even made it that far?
United needed a Pajoy goal in Chicago to avoid a fourth-place finish in the final match of the season. And then Pajoy happened to be the player who earned the secondary assist on the Nick DeLeon goal that knocked the Red Bulls out of the playoffs and sent United through to the Eastern Conference Finals. With Cruz on the roster instead of Pajoy, United's season might have ended at least two weeks earlier.