Lionard Pajoy

Starting to clean up the roster mess at D.C. United

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You know about that first rules of holes; when you find yourself in one, stop digging.

So good on D.C. United for recognizing mistakes and moving to fix them. The club today announced that it has declined options on Lionard Pajoy, Carlos Ruiz and midfielder Marcelo Saragosa.

The old “keep on digging” strategy had been employed at points throughout the year, as coach Ben Olsen continued to play Pajoy through the spring, never mind that he was clearly a striker who couldn’t strike. And the club signed Ruiz because … well … they signed Ruiz. Not sure what else to say about a textbook “reach.”

And when was the last time Saragosa, a marginally skilled tough guy midfielder, played for a really good team? That would be the 2005 champion LA Galaxy. Of course, he only started two games for Steve Sampson’s bunch that year – and it wasn’t really even a great team, just one that wound its way rather fortuitously through a deflated playoff field.

Signing all three members of this trio was a mistake. (Heck, the club even traded to get Pajoy.) Choices like those were one of the many, many reason United just finished its season as the worst – the worst! – team in MLS history.

So, jettisoning these three is a good start to cleaning up the mess.

(MORE: Unwanted recognition — D.C. United sets MLS record with three-win season)

Unfortunately, the same day brought news that the organization is still all thumbs, firing two of its support staff, two of its press officers.

Is the implication that DC United (Did we mention the team was the WORST in MLS history?) was getting bad press, and that it was the PR staff’s fault?

Sure. Let’s go with that. Because it can’t be, you know, that a team wrought with ridiculous personnel choices seriously stunk up the joint this year, right?

Some real stunners on today’s MLS All-Star ballot

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Something has gone very, very wrong in the universe when D.C. United’s Lionard Pajoy is on the official MLS All-Star Ballot and Dallas’ George John is not.

Some of the boo-boos on this year’s ballot, out just this very afternoon and now available for fan voting, are understandable. For instance, Portland’s Rodney Wallace has been an absolute revelation at left wing. All-Star material? Eh, maybe … maybe not.

But considering that each MLS club gets six men on the ballot for better or worse, Wallace (pictured) probably deserves placement. The Portland Timbers man isn’t there because he was formally a marginal MLS defender before Caleb Porter’s brainstorm; after this year’s conversion, Wallace’s name plate might read “intriguing MLS left-winger.”

So that one we can understand. But others? Some of these are so bad, they make me want to drive around the country slapping people on the back of their noggins, the way Special Agent Gibbs does in NCIS.

(Embarrassingly, the ballot was chosen by media voters. I was one of them … but I am not guilty of any of the following.)  Some of the head-scratchers:

  • Lionard Pajoy? Lionard Pajoy? Seriously? The D.C. United forward has 10 goals in 44 MLS appearances – far, far from MLS All-Star production.
  • The absence of FC Dallas center back George John is inexplicable. He has been instrumental in helping Schellas Hyndman’s team merge into July with the league’s best record.
  • Sounders DP striker Obafemi Martins is absent, although good cases can be made for most of Seattle’s six choices. (Michael Gspurning, DeAndre Yedlin, Djimi Traore, Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales and Eddie Johnson.) Traore is the one I might replace.
  •  Adam Jahn from San Jose? Four goals midway through a rookie season certainly says “Promising.” But I’m not sure it says “All-Star.” Same for Deshorn Brown, Colorado’s talented rookie attacker.
  • Not to kick the pool old Goats, but any appearance from Chivas USA can be questioned outside of Dan Kennedy’s. (Pretty much the same for Toronto, by the way.) Alas, rules require six choices from each of the 19 MLS clubs.  I dunno – does that need a re-think?
  • Some of the potential All-Stars are “names” but are not enjoying good seasons. We’ll excuse these because they are mostly products of ballots (media ballots to form the public ballot, that is) that were due back on May 22, still early in the season. Prime examples are Chicago’s Chris Rolfe and D.C. United’s Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius.

Major League Soccer’s All-Stars will face Italy’s Roma on July 31 match at Sporting Park in Kansas City.

Ben Olsen isn’t the only one upset around D.C. United

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We aren’t the only ones wondering if United manager Ben Olsen was shifting a wee too much of the blame on the players for the death spiral that has been D.C. United’s 2013 season.

The players are wondering about some of the personnel choices – and I think we can all agree that a back-and-forth like this, a division of thought and unity, is not going to help anyone.

Olsen made two significant changes before the most recent loss, the one that matched a club record for winless streaks, now at 10 matches. Well, perhaps one and a half; Carlos Ruiz got his first start in favor of usual first-choice striker Lionard Pajoy, but that’s probably only a halfsie on the significant scale.

But removing Dwayne De Rosario from the lineup, that’s checks the box under  “major move.” And it didn’t set too well inside some corners of the locker room.

The manager and his top player are trying to patch things up, but none of this moves United any closer to rescuing a season in free fall.

Here’s where it started: De Rosario told the Washington Post that Olsen did not believe the former league MVP and Ruiz were a good fit. “De Ro” indicated after Saturday’s contest that he was not one bit happy about it.

If you look at our track record as goal scorers, as creators, it’s not a bad problem to try at least once. … There is talent in this locker room, but I don’t know if we are using the talent to the best of its ability.”

Here’s the thing: The result wasn’t good (a 2-0 loss to the highly capable Portland Timbers). But Ruiz was quite lively, creating several opportunities with his movement near goal and typically feisty hold-up play.

In short, he was better than Pajoy or anyone else who has gobbled up minutes at striker while Ruiz languished and, eventually, wondered what in the heck was going on.

It does make you wonder what United’s season might have looked like at this point if Ruiz – yes, yes, I know, he’s not the name most MLS fans want to see – had been playing more regularly. Olsen has always preferred Pajoy for all the hustle-bustle defensive work off the ball.

But Pajoy has two goals in 12 games, among the reasons United  is 19th of 19 teams in scoring.

So, it’s fair to wonder what things might look like with Ruiz, the best goal scorer at RFK, even at age 33, playing alongside the team’s top creator, De Rosario.

Olsen: “It is on the players now”

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Ben Olsen is no longer searching himself and his coaching staff for answers. Players of D.C. United be warned, your coach is on the warpath.

“It is on the players now. I am going to put them under a microscope. We’ll see if that works because they were prepared [Sunday],” Olsen told the Washington Post. “I have looked at myself and now I am going to hold [the players] to very, very high standards. If it’s not working, we will make changes.”

So obviously a 1-5-1 start is not sitting pretty with Olsen and his staff, but what about the powers that be at D.C. United?  “Ben Olsen is not going anywhere,” General Manager Dave Kasper said. “Ben has a been handed a tough card with a lot of injuries and he has had to change lineups.”

The dreaded vote of confidence. Great.

Following the 3-2 defeat to I-95 rivals Philadelphia on Sunday, United sit bottom of the Eastern conference with just one win from seven. Olsen has a veteran squad trying to turn things around, but they’ve been hampered with the injury of  young attacker Nick DeLeon and 2012 MLS All-Star Chris Pontius’ lack of consistency.

MORE: D.C. United need a new stadium, now more than ever

United have the individuals to win games, DeLeon when he returns, Pontius, captain Dwayne De Rosario, Lionard Pajoy, young Brazilian DP Rafael, the list goes on. But small defensive errors have cost United big so far. 2-0 down after 11 minutes on Sunday against the Union, they fought back admirably to narrowly lose.

But if they keep putting themselves in situations like that, this rough patch Olsen’s men are having will elongate until the fall. And nobody wants that.

USMNT youngster Bill Hamid has been the only player to cover himself in any glory so far in 2013. And that’s because the ‘keeper has been working overtime due to lackluster defending. Only New York and Chicago have conceded more than D.C. and if Hamid wasn’t on song it could be much more.

Things can only get better for United and Olsen. Once a defense first approach returns, United should flourish. But like Olsen said, “If it’s not working, we will make changes.” You’ve been warned, guys.

MLS preview: Philadelphia Union at D.C. United

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D.C. United needs Mack McInerney. Or someone very much like him, at least.

McInerney is the young Philadelphia Union striker who has four goals in the young season, placing him among Major League Soccer’s top goal scorers. He still has much to learn about the game, not a bit surprising since young “Jack Mac” is just 20 years old.

But he already has a Costco-sized supply of “strikers instinct,” a level of awareness that plenty of professionals will never know. And his goals aren’t just stat-padders; they tend to be important ones, like the game-winners this year against Colorado and New England or the late, late equalizer last week against Toronto.

Yes, D.C. United could use a guy like that.

McInerney (pictured) isn’t going anywhere, of course. He is part of coach John Hackworth’s up-and-coming bunch in Philadelphia, where one of the league’s youngest assemblies of talent is hanging tough in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, even if the Union games don’t tend to be the most beautiful.

Then there’s D.C. United, one of the presumed Eastern Conference contenders. Instead, Ben Olsen’s team languishes at rock bottom in the standings, last among 10 teams at the moment with just four points off six matches.

Consecutive losses at home to Columbus and New York have added pressure upon pressure around RFK Stadium. So today’s late afternoon kickoff (5 p.m. ET on ESPN2) looms mightily important for the Black and Red. (And if the weight of it all wasn’t enough, security in the nation’s capital is extra high for this one.)

United’s woes are mostly about the lack of scoring.

The ongoing inability to get Dwayne De Rosario going (attached to injuries and suspensions that have limited him to just two starts and one appearance off the bench in 2013), Chris Pontius’ ongoing struggles and Nick DeLeon’s injury have all contributed as United has turned up just two goals.

Pontius has played every minute so far, with just one assist (and no goals) to show for it. That is not going to get him the U.S. national team call-up that United fans so desperately desire.

So much of the goal-scoring malaise falls on Lionard Pajoy – or on the deciders around RFK for continuing to believe that he will break out and score goals in bunches, never mind the growing sample of data suggesting that the Colombian striker just doesn’t have it in him. He gets into positions reliably enough and certainly works hard enough, but just misses that little something near goal, that confidence or that alarm bell that rings loudly at just the right moment to shoot.

Backup striker Carlos Ruiz looks like a shell of the goal-scoring menace that once infuriated MLS defenders. All that leaves Olsen … searching for answers.

Casey Townsend, who scored twice last weekend while on loan at third-division Richmond, has even remained with the club for Sunday’s contest.  

As for the visiting Union, Hackworth tends to mix and match in the midfield quite a bit, with Keon Daniel or Michael Farfan pulling the offensive strings. Sebastien Le Toux could find himself in there, or further up the field if the McInerney-Conor Casey strike combo is adjusted. Danny Cruz could face his old team. (He was in the middle of big preseason donnybrook.) Or will this finally be the time to give new Brazilian midfielder Kleberson his first Philly Union start? The 2002 World Cup winner has played just 11 minutes since his arrival four weeks ago.

Center back Amobi Okugo is another promising Union man to watch. The 22-year-old American was added as midfield talent but has been outstanding in central defensive duty.

Seven regular season games between the Eastern Conference rivals have produced 22 yellow cards and four red cards. And these teams were involved in a preseason melee that saw De Rosario suspended for the first two MLS regular season matches. So, yes, things are likely to be physical and feisty, especially considering the stakes for D.C. United.