D.C. United defender Oniel Fisher’s season has ended prematurely, as a knee injury will keep him off the field until 2019. A collision early in the second half of Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Montreal Impact did the damage, and United announced the diagnosis today: partial tears to the ACL, MCL, PCL, and medial meniscus in his right knee. The club did not mention Fisher’s recovery timeline, but a knee injury of this severity could make it hard for him to participate before the 2019 season kicks off.
After entering the season as a starter at left back (not his natural position), Fisher briefly found himself on the outside looking in after Joseph Mora joined the team. However, after Mora’s early red card at Real Salt Lake saw him subbed into the match early, Fisher started 16 straight games (all but two of which were at right back) before a hamstring issue saw him used more sparingly in the first half of September. Fisher’s form has largely followed United’s, as he was among the most improved players on the team following the opening of Audi Field. In the end, Fisher will finish the season with 24 appearances (20 starts), posting 1 goal and 1 assist.
Ben Olsen’s options are currently in flux. Nick DeLeon entered the season as the starter at right back, but an unspecified knee injury has kept him out of the last 19 games. DeLeon has been training without restrictions for a week or so, but after four straight months without a game, it may be weeks before he is fit enough to start at a position teams generally try not to substitute at.
On Saturday, recent acquisition Kevin Ellis was Olsen’s choice. Ellis had some rocky moments in a game that was back-and-forth all night, but during the first half of the season he did quite well with the Chicago Fire mostly playing right back. Ellis might not be as fast as Fisher, but he’s far from slow and would bring a more physical note for United. Homegrown defender Jalen Robinson could also be in contention, though over the years he has shown himself to be more confident playing center back.
There are unconventional options, however. Two weeks ago, with Fisher being held back as a precaution against those aforementioned hamstring issues, Olsen opted to field a 352 against the New York Red Bulls, with Robinson playing on the right of the back three and Paul Arriola playing as a wingback. While the Black-and-Red had their moments, they were clearly better once they shifted into their more familiar 4231 during the second half. It’s also difficult to find a place for vital midfielder Yamil Asad (who like Fisher was only available off the bench against the Red Bulls) in the 352.
A popular option among fans may well be playing Arriola at right back, as he did in September 2nd’s 3-1 win over Atlanta United. However, on that day, United was missing Fisher, DeLeon, and the long-injured Chris Odoi-Atsem. Zoltan Stieber came in on the right wing, and Arriola ended up winning the penalty kick that won D.C. the match. It wasn’t a flawless performance, and moving Arriola away from the attack would rob United of some pace, but there is a certain appeal to adding a player of Stieber’s ability to the lineup.
Most likely, we may see Olsen make his choices based on the opponent. Arriola’s speed in the back may have some appeal against the pacey FC Dallas attack, for example, while fielding Ellis against the team that strangely cut him loose has obvious appeal. Until DeLeon is fully fit, though, right back may become a guessing game.