USA TODAY Sports
As the 2013 MLS season approaches, we're counting down the days to March 2 and running the proverbial rule over each player on D.C. United's roster. Today's subject: the most polarizing man to wear Black-and-Red in a long time, Colombian striker Lionard Pajoy.
Nobody will call him a pretty soccer player. Many won't even call him a soccer player. But Lionard Pajoy had the striker position on lock during the D.C. United's run to the 2012 Eastern Conference Final. When he arrived from the Philadelphia Union through a trade that sent fan favorite Danny Cruz the other way, very few (if any) D.C. partisans counted themselves as excited about the transaction. When he got his first start in Black-and-Red the very next weekend, most were nonplussed. By the end of the season, many fans were - and are - still unconvinced that he deserved a spot on the roster, let alone in the starting XI.
At the same time, there are others (myself included) who have come around somewhat on United's #26. And many gallons of imaginary ink have been spilt on these digital pages figuring out whether the Colombian's contribution to United's late-season run into the playoffs was positive or negative and whether he should play any role for los Capitalinos in 2013. This article isn't going to be an attempt to end either debate. That would be impossible, as both the Pajaters and the aPajologists have reasonable points.
So indulge me as I spell out why I think Pajoy was a worthwhile addition to United's 2012 and why, nevertheless, I want to see his role diminish greatly in 2013.
Lionard Pajoy's primary strength as a forward is his hold-up play and the effort he exerts pressuring opposing center backs when United lose possession. By August, it had become clear that Ben Olsen's plan from the beginning of the season, to boss possession through midfield play, was not going to work with the pieces he had. Too often, the center backs, fullbacks and defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen had no outlets to move the ball up the field other than the long ball. Olsen recognized this and made a move for a player with Pajoy's hold-up ability. His insertion into the lineup allowed United to recycle possession even when forced to bypass the midfield; plays that previously resulted in Brandon McDonald's trademark Long Balls to Nobody In Particular now had a Somebody In Particular, and Pajoy did a better job than any of D.C.'s other forwards at that particular job.
Granted, Pajoy was less than accomplished at some of the other major tasks traditionally assigned to forwards. His finishing last year was certainly something well below snuff, and he didn't act as the creator of many goals either. Tactically, though, I still think he was the best option for the 2012 incarnation of D.C. United because he allowed us to keep possession and occupied the opposing center backs to create more space for our wings and midfield to work with the ball. He also acted as the first line of defense in a way that our other strikers regularly couldn't or wouldn't.
Because our scoring at that point in the season was covered by other players like Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon and (until his injury) Dwayne De Rosario plus occasional other contributors, we didn't need Pajoy to score more than a handful of goals to improve the team. His defensive work and hold-up play allowed Olsen to make the tactical shift to a flatter 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, a more defensively solid stance to keep our goals against low and grind out results even after we lost our best and most creative player on September 11.
All that said, Pajoy's spot in the lineup for the upcoming season should not be written in ink. If at all, it should be written very lightly in pencil that is easy to erase. Based on the technical staff's actions and the statements of Ben Olsen, their plan seems to be this: Pajoy will begin the season as the likely starter up top, but by the summer, they hope to see new young DP striker Rafael Teixeira da Souza (a/k/a Gladiador) supplant him in the first XI. We'll surely have more on Gladiador deeper into this countdown series, but suffice it for now to say that the scouting report pegs him as a younger Lionard Pajoy who can score with more regularity. Unless Pajoy surprises everybody with an incredibly unlikely jump in production, at 31 years of age, he's a known commodity. Rafael isn't known yet, but we're all obviously hoping either he or Pajoy or new addition Casey Townsend provides the work and the end product this year.
We'll see if that plays out over the course of the season, but let's turn back to Pajoy and have it out - like I know we will - in the comments.