Spare a thought for a moment for Paul Arriola. After the sole designated player for D.C. United was sent off for a tackle on April 14th against Columbus Crew SC, the winger faced a long spell on the sideline. Arriola of course would miss the next game, but due to United’s weird schedule thus far this season, it meant a full three weeks in between games for the US international.
“The three weeks were something that no one would wish for in a season,” Arriola told reporters early this week after practice. “It was like I just went through a preseason, and now it’s [like] my first game.”
After United acquiesced to Toronto FC’s wish to move their April 7th tilt due to Champions League conflicts, United was left with just two games in the month of April. A week off between those two games, and the one upcoming this weekend against Real Salt Lake has had United’s coaching staff searching for ways to keep the team in sync when there are no games to be played.
“We tried to mimic the rhythm of a week to week schedule,” Head Coach Ben Olsen told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “On a Thursday or Friday, late in the week, we’ve played Richmond, we played Maryland, we’ve had matches against ourselves, making sure we were mimicking the weekly rhythm.”
But those games can only scratch the surface of what United faces in MLS competition. And Saturday’s game against RSL will be just the third time in 42 days that United will have suited up for a meaningful game. In that time, they have fallen to the basement of the Eastern Conference, with just one win and two draws from their first seven games of the season.
Two weekends ago, they took a lead on the road against the Philadelphia Union, looking to build upon the three points picked up against the Crew two weeks prior. But after falling behind in the second half, United found an equalizer, only to then concede the winner a mere 90 seconds later.
In the meantime, United has worked on some of the issues in that game, a game in which Olsen said this week that United made the Union look as good as they did.
Olsen noted as some of the adjustments United needed to make after the Philly loss: “How we get after the ball a little bit more, how we now come from our low block to a higher pressing stance, and sustain possessions in the other team’s end. That’s been a constant challenge for this group for the last couple of years, but I think this team has the ability to do that.”
United still won’t have the services of Russell Canouse or Junior Moreno against RSL, with both on the recovery from injuries. Chris Durkin has filled in admirably in their place, though a misplay in the box against the Union led directly to Borek Dockal’s winner. But, United will have Arriola back, once again forcing Olsen to choose between Arriola, Zoltan Stieber, Yamil Asad, and Luciano Acosta in midfield.
And after a spell on the sideline, Arriola is all ramped up to get back onto the field.
“I had a lot of time to reflect. It was my first red card as a professional,” said Arriola. I couldn’t wait for this week to get into it.”
What United now face is another seven games on the road before they can finally christen Audi Field on July 14th. The World Cup break will give them a small respite, but United will have to play five games out on the West Coast before then, including their next four in a row.
Given how they have performed so far this year, getting much out of the next seven games will be a big ask. But United is trying to put the first seven games behind them, hoping to change their fortunes before the season spirals out of control.
“It’s a long season, and we’re seven games in. We’ve had some close calls, a win, two draws, a little bit of a strange schedule,” said Olsen. “All that now is in the past. What’s in front of us now is a three game, West Coast road trip. We are all looking forward to it.”