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Paul Arriola is suspended. How bad is that for D.C. United?

Quantifying what United loses when their Swiss Army Knife isn’t playing on the wing

D.C. United knew they’d be facing the New England Revolution today without Paul Arriola, who after a VAR review was given a red card for stepping on the Houston Dynamo’s Adam Lundqvist. Yesterday, something some of us had been suspecting was confirmed: MLS’s Disciplinary Committee extended his suspension another game, meaning that he’ll miss both today’s game and Wednesday’s match with the Chicago Fire.

We’re not here to dispute the suspension. Arriola was just trying to run rather than attempting to harm Lundqvist, but the league has set a precedent on fouls like this one. It’s a tough break for United, and for Arriola, but it’s in line with other calls in the league this year.

Our concern at the moment is what happens to United without Arriola. Originally this piece was planned as an examination of what happens to United’s attack when Arriola, who can play eight different positions in the formations Ben Olsen has used this year at a respectable level, isn’t playing as a winger in a 4231. Since he’s out for this weekend, he won’t be playing as a winger or anywhere else, so it’s just as well.

The table below breaks down United’s record and goals for/against based on where Arriola played for a minimum of 53 minutes in a given game. Why 53 minutes? Well, despite Arriola’s versatility, there’s really only one game that makes things complicated otherwise. In the 4-0 home loss to LAFC, Arriola played 53 minutes as a right winger, then moved to right wingback in a 342 after Wayne Rooney was sent off. For our purposes, it simplifies things to use that minute total as the dividing line rather than cut that game out of the rest and sort it differently somehow.

In the table below, Arriola’s position is listed first, followed by United’s record in those games, and then goal difference, goals for, and goals against.

Paul Arriola positional breakdown

Arriola position Record Goal difference Goals for Goals Against
Arriola position Record Goal difference Goals for Goals Against
Right/Left wing, 4231 4W-2D-1L 5 10 5
Attacking midfield, 3421 2W-0D-0L 3 4 1
Number 8, 4231 0W-0D-1L -1 1 2
Right/left back, 4231 0W-0D-1L -2 0 2
Right/left wingback, 3421 1W-0D-1L 0 3 3

Before we proceed, you might have noticed that there’s one game not on the list here. In the 0-0 draw at Toronto FC, Arriola entered the game in the 62nd minute. 28 minutes isn’t really significant enough for us to count, but for the record, he played right wingback.

Now, few people are probably surprised to see the basic point being made here: yeah, United is clearly better with Arriola in an attacking role. Seeing it presented so starkly is still helpful, though. When United has had Arriola in an attacking role, they’ve been dominant: 20 points from 9 games, +8 goal difference, 14 goals (that’s 1.56 per game), and against non-LAFC teams they’ve conceded just two goals during the same spell. If they could replicate that for a full season, that’s 76 points, 53 goals scored, and only 19 goals against (which would break the all-time MLS record).

Meanwhile, three of D.C.’s four losses have come with Arriola playing as a central midfielder, wingback, or fullback. They’ve scored just 4 goals in those 4 games, and three of those came in the 3-2 win over the Colorado Rapids, who are still on pace to be the worst team in MLS history at the moment. If you treat that as an outlier like the LAFC loss...oof. One goal scored and zero points in the standings from three games with Arriola filling in elsewhere within the formation does not bode well for these upcoming games!

The natural question to ask here is why it’s such a huge difference. My personal theory, which is hardly going out on some kind of limb, is that United misses Arriola’s quickness, his off-the-ball intelligence, and his insistent style of play. Even when Arriola isn’t particularly sharp on a given night, he’s constantly getting into dangerous spots, which draws defenders, which frees up Rooney and Luciano Acosta. The dominoes fall pretty quickly in United’s favor when they’ve got Arriola in his best position.

The Black-and-Red’s leaders know this all too well. “Wayne and Lucho were able to find some better pockets because of Paul’s running,” said Olsen after the 3-1 home win over the Columbus Crew earlier this month. “We need to stretch the field vertically, to push their backs as far back as we can, to give those two room to operate.”

Rooney had similar thoughts after the same game, which came after a spell in which he played a non-winger role in four of the previous five outings. “Bringing Paul back into that position helps...both offensively and defensively. Helps us be on the front foot, and press them a bit higher... Paul’s opened the field up for us.”

Arriola’s absence puts a major burden on Rooney and Acosta, obviously, but it also means United will need to get more out of their other attackers. Lucas Rodriguez, since torching the Rapids, has 0 goals, 0 assists, 4 shots (3 on goal), and 9 fouls suffered in 6 starts since then. Ulises Segura did notch an assist on United’s goal against Houston, but that took him up to 2 assists in 1,875 MLS minutes.

As the presumptive option to replace Arriola, he has to provide more in terms of final product, and also needs to be smarter in his off-the-ball movement. Work rate is never going to be a question for Segura, but while he might never match Arriola’s technical ability, it’s still within his ability to be enough of an option running without the ball to open up space for Rooney and Acosta.

Zoltan Stieber could also factor in, as he looked just a bit livelier against Real Betis than he has in a while, but he’s simply too different a player from Arriola to expect him to just plug in and do what Arriola does. In fact, if we’re purely thinking of finding someone to buzz around, make smart runs, and be the “assistant” for LuchoRoo, we might well be in a spot where Griffin Yow is closer to fitting the bill. He’s quicker, which matters a lot when the rest of the attack is on the slow side, and where Stieber needs time and space to play the key pass, Yow seems more comfortable playing the easier ball to United’s stars and then making a run looking for a return pass.

Olsen could also bring back the 3421, though with Donovan Pines being out injured, United would be one injury away from having to either change back to 4231 or play someone like Leonardo Jara as part of the back three.

However, it’s almost beside the point. There’s no formation that will be able to hide Arriola’s absence at this point, and that’s the problem United faces. No matter what player or formation Olsen chooses in these next two games, Arriola’s absence is going to loom large.