By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON — Ben Olsen knows all too well the skepticism surrounding Lionard Pajoy. The man seems to do everything but finish. Admire the work ethic. Praise his awareness. Worry about the missed chances.
But on this night, Pajoy buried one. And to Olsen, that’s all that mattered.
“He scored a goal,” the D.C. United coach deadpanned before smirking. “The one that won the game. So you’re not going to get any knocks on Pajoy from me.”
With the 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake (1-1-0), United (1-1-0) followed the same formula that found them success in last season’s playoffs: Play smart in the back, clog the midfield and grind out a result. Although Pajoy was far from flawless with his execution in the final third, he keyed United’s workmanlike performance while still managing to nod home a rebound in the 60th minute.
“I think everyone on this team likes playing with him,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “Everyone tends to say he’s not the greatest finisher, but the work he puts in off the ball I think is phenomenal for us, and that’s what we need from a forward.”
The focus on Pajoy was heightened with United captain Dwayne De Rosario wrapping a two-game suspension for head-butting Philadelphia’s Danny Cruz during a preseason match. While United dropped a 2-0 result to open the campaign last week in Houston, Saturday’s win in front of 17,072 at RFK Stadium gave them a respectable split in the 2011 MLS MVP’s absence.
As Olsen put it, “We were probably looking for four points out of this first two, knowing Houston’s a tough one. So a win tonight at home is big.”
Early on, both teams’ early-season rust was readily apparent. The only life in the first half stemmed from an exchange of chances midway through the stanza, with United goalkeeper Bill Hamid tipping away a Robbie Findley cross moments before Salt Lake counterpart Nick Rimando pushed aside a Pontius blast.
But United got the goal they needed after the break when John Thorrington’s chip forced a lunging save out of Rimando and Pajoy was on the doorstep to clean up.
“It was one of those plays where as a forward, you’re always aware of what might come out of it,” Pajoy said via a translator. “And I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Added Thorrington: “Anytime you score a goal, I’d say you’re in the perfect place. I was happy for him. He works his tail off for the team. Most strikers are only judged on how many goals they score. For me, he does so much more than just that.”
Despite missing starters Nat Borchers (quad), Chris Wingert (knee), Ned Grabavoy (family matter) and Javier Morales (knee), Salt Lake won the possession battle. But searching late, the visitors failed to mount any threats more dangerous than Khari Stephenson’s shot right at Hamid and Lovel Palmer’s long-range effort that missed the near post.
“You’ve got a diamond midfield that pinches in, so sometimes it looks like they dominate possession, but none of it was really penetrating, so that was good on our part,” United right back James Riley said. “We definitely showed some resiliency to bunker in and deal with things.”
From Pajoy up top through the midfield and back line, United won tackles and closed gaps — the type of win-ugly effort the team has delivered with increasing frequency as the 35-year-old Olsen has latched on to his coaching identity.
“It was a sound performance,” Hamid said, “from the back to the front.”