United gives up Cruz in trade with Philadelphia; Was this the right move?

On Thursday afternoon, D.C. United traded 22-year old midfielder Danny Cruz to the Philadelphia Union for 31-year old Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy and an International Player slot. That international slot was then used to add Pijoy to United’s roster as they had just traded away an international spot to Portland in the Mike Chabala trade from last week.

My immediate reaction to this news was one of stunned silence. Not quite the same reaction most United fans got when they heard the news just over 12 months ago when the Black-and-Red acquired Dwayne De Rosario, but a quizical reaction none the less. It jarred me because so much was made about the under the radar addition of Danny Cruz during the offseason and how he seems so much to be a Ben Olsen-esque type of player. Why would United give up on him so soon?

After taking the night to ponder the reasons behind this move I’ve come up with a few thoughts on the move and what it means going forward:

1) Was this a panic move in the face of the team dropping further down the Eastern Conference standings?

Yes and No. I agree, quite the fence sitter I am. Yes in the sense that bringing in another forward in an already jammed forward position seems a bit of overkill – especially a forward with a higher salary ($180,000 per season) and higher age as opposed to Cruz ($100,000) and his still 10-year career ahead of him.

No in the sense that of the forward options, only De Rosario right now is a viable option up top due. Sure, we can add Chris Pontius up top and no one would really argue the point as he has been the only productive player the past month or so, but having him on the wing adds a special dimension to United’s already predictable attack. Maicon Santos (toe injury) and Hamdi Salihi (virus) have not been options the past two weeks and the recently acquired Long Tan is raw at best. At least Pajoy has scored 5 goals and added a few assists for a rather young Philadelphia squad. But how does this help United? Well, it gives United another target forward of sorts as Santos has been the only one capable of playing that role. DeRo, Pontius and Salihi are much better suited running off of another forward. DeRo and Pontius are creators/finishers while Salihi is pretty much chisled in stone as a goal poacher.

2) What does this mean for Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi?

I think this probably hurts Santos more than Salihi. As mentioned earlier, Santos and Pajoy have similar games. The problem with Santos now is a toe injury and those don’t go away quickly. Also you have to add in the fact of Santos’ track record through his first 4 seasons here in MLS – it’s been the same wherever he’s gone. Score early, score often and then somehow fade into oblivion. Can you not say this is exactly what has happened so far with Santos? Granted, he’s done more with United in just over half a season than he has ever done in previous stops in Toronto, Dallas and Chivas USA, but is it too much to ask right now for him to recapture that magic from late March through May?

The move to get Pijoy tells me that the coaching staff would say yes, it’s too much to ask right now.

As for Salihi, he is a unique talent on this squad. He’s been great in the role of a second-half sub that poaches goals and puts games to rest. This is critically important for any team looking to get back to the playoffs. The problem has been when Salihi has been a starter. He just doesn’t seem to mesh well with his quicker teamates throughout the field. Salihi, to his credit, makes good runs but is often overlooked on these runs and it get’s magnified over a 90 minute stretch. There’s been a lot of speculation amongst United’s faithful fanbase that this move will signal the end of Salihi’s time at United. I don’t feel that is the case at all. That doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for concern.

The problem here for Salihi is two-fold. One, he has a gauranteed contract that runs through the 2013 season and Two, he’s getting paid DP money. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I don’t think Olsen and Technical Director Dave Kasper had a second-half sub role in mind for their goalscoring find from Europe in the offseason.

These are the chances you take when you sign these Designated Players. You may have an inkling of how a player can fit into your squad or how quickly they can adjust to the admittedly physical and athletic prowess of MLS in general, but at the end of the day, it’s only game time which will be the ultimate decider in how that adjustment is made. Right now finacially Hamdi’s juice isn’t worth the squeeze, but I do maintain that he does play a vital role for this team by the time all is said and done this season. Goal poachers are not easy to come by in this league and I’m perfectly willing to have Hamdi play that second-half sub role for the remainder of the season. Next year however, he will have to find a way to integrate himself into the starting X1 and play at a level that will keep him there. Otherwise, it’s another DP playing part-time minutes and not contributing (sound familiar Branko?)

3) There goes some midfield depth

Yes, jettisoning Cruz hurts United’s depth in midfield for sure, but with the resurgence of Nick DeLeon over the past few games and the return of Andy Najar from the Olympics, Cruz wasn’t going to get much playing time anyway. Throw in the MLS Best X1 form from Pontius and the experience and steadiness of a Lewis Neal, then the decision was an easy one for the Braintrust to make.

The downside to this of course is that you let a 22-year old player go who embodied the 90 MPH in-your-face type of play that this team quite honestly has been missing for years. While it’s nice to play some pretty soccer (as United has done mostly at RFK this season but failed miserably to do on the road – that’s a column for another day), it’s just as nice to know that the other team fears playing against players like Danny Cruz. No doubt United will feel that wrath this upcoming Sunday night.

4) Is United better for making this trade? 

If this team truly was concerned with their future makeup, then moving Cruz was a bad move in terms of building the squad beyond this season. Giving up on youth that has plenty of playoff experience is never a good thing. Does Danny Cruz remind anyone of the skill that Najar possesses? No, but we knew that off the bat. We knew that Cruz was a worker bee on the wing that lacked the special flair of a Najar and his finishing ability. But sometimes it’s even more important to prevent other teams from scoring than it is to wow the locals with panache and an assortment of SportsCenter Top 10 type of moves.

If I had to make a choice, I would say Philadelphia in the long run will make out better on this deal because Cruz is younger and cheaper than Pajoy. Also, Cruz has a history with head coach John Hackworth with the U-17’s whereas Pajoy is coming into this team cold and is being expected to contribute right away. I don’t think Cruz is under the same type of pressure that Pajoy will be initially to contribute and that could go a long way towards deciding who makes out better in the long run.

The move for Pajoy seems a bit knee-jerk right now and may benefit United in the short term if he can score some goals right away. Long term though I don’t see this as a win for United. My guess is at the start of next season either Pajoy or Santos will be with this team, but not both of them. If it turns out that Pajoy was simply a 12-game rental, then it’s a landslide in Philadelphia’s favor.

 

All that being said, it certainly was an interesting move and one that will be highly debated over the remaining few months of the MLS

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