Every team hopes to come through their preseason with no major injuries, but fortune has not favored D.C. United this year. Setting aside knocks and visa issues that have kept multiple players out of significant chunks of this crucial period of the season, United is facing an injury that we’ll likely be talking about all season. Paul Arriola was substituted early in Saturday’s preseason win over Orlando City, and the Washington Post’s Steve Goff has reported that the team suspects he has suffered a major knee injury (MRI results are, as of this writing, still pending).
Arriola’s injury, even if we’re not talking about the worst-case scenario, underlines something that was already a talking point throughout the preseason: there just aren’t enough players on the roster. In a league that has always been a grind, United is currently poised to enter the 2020 season with the 23 players currently under contract. Erik Sorga will boost that number to 24, but with Arriola sidelined for a while and Chris Durkin away on loan, we’re really talking about 22.
United has trialists with them in camp, and as Ben Olsen told reporters just before the team returned to Florida, both Aaron Maund and Carter Manley are still in contention to make the roster. Both have MLS experience, and both cover positions that United is a bit thin at. Maund would be the fourth center back on the roster, while the team seems to view Manley as a fullback/defensive midfielder combination.
Even if we make the assumption that both are going to end up under contract, a 24-man squad is almost impossible to structure in a way that would leave the team properly covered at every position. While United’s attacking midfield acquisitions this offseason have provided some degree of cover for Arriola’s absence, the fact is that the roster is still alarmingly thin in a few places.
Let’s start with some basic math. That 24-man roster would probably be missing Arriola and Pines for at least the first month of the season, and there are still questions about whether Yamil Asad will be able to start the opener, and there’s also reason to wonder whether Edison Flores will have 90 minutes in him come February 29. It suddenly becomes a case of entering the season with just 21 or 22 players vying for a place in the gameday 18, with fitness concerns over a couple of projected starters on the day. That situation will improve as Flores and Asad have more time in training, but their returns don’t cover United at the positions they’re thinnest at, which is really where the problems come in.
In the back, new and old injuries have already caused concern. Donovan Pines is weeks away from returning from an ankle sprain, and that came on top of a hamstring issue early in preseason. Even if he’s back in full training by the end of March, he’s effectively missed the entire preseason, and as such we should expect that “fully fit” doesn’t necessarily mean ready to start a game. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he ends up having to make a few appearances with Loudoun as the team tries to avoid any setbacks in his recovery.
Working under the assumption that Maund gets a contract, that would leave United facing the early games of the season (which have almost always been telling in Olsen’s time in charge) with just one back-up at center back of any kind.
We’ve already got solid evidence that the Black-and-Red are planning on starting the year with Russell Canouse filling in at right back due to some older injuries to other players. Oniel Fisher and Chris Odoi-Atsem are both in the “getting there” stage of their recovery from a terrible knee injury (Fisher) and Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Odoi-Atsem). Odoi-Atsem is “a hair” further along according to Olsen, but at this point it appears that right back will probably involve an out-of-position starter for at least a couple of early games. There is the additional security that would come from signing Manley, a career right back, but during his trial he’s been playing more as a defensive mdifielder than anything else.
Fisher and Odoi-Atsem are also the primary back-ups for Joseph Mora at left back, and it gets really hairy after that. United used Arriola and Ulises Segura at left back and left wingback in 2019, but it’s safe to say that both were really having to stretch to make it work. I’d bring up Birnbaum’s time at left back a few years ago, but again, United is perilously thin at center back.
Arriola’s absence doesn’t really impact those spots; he has to be on the depth chart at right and left back because he can play pretty much anywhere, but the plan this year was to avoid having to ask him to play there with any frequency. The good news is that Arriola was projected to start in arguably the deepest section of the roster, and though Asad might not be at 100% on opening day, an attacking midfield trio of Asad, Flores, and Julian Gressel is still quite good, and the back-ups (Segura, Emmanuel Boateng, Griffin Yow, and Kevin Paredes) are as a group no worse than average in MLS.
However, that doesn’t mean that United is adequately stocked in the attacking end. Ola Kamara is a very good starting option, and Sorga has some promise as his back-up...and that’s it. Segura appears to be the third option up front, but there are already issues about his finishing as a winger, and he’s not a natural forward in any case. United has used Loudoun call-up Michael Gamble up front in their last two preseason games, and has some other options (Gressel spent some time in college as a striker, and Yow could play there as well), but again, we’re getting way out into the theoretical space rather than just having a third striker.
Last year, United started to run into trouble the moment Mora came out of a collision with Orlando defender Ruan with a broken jaw. They also had issues late in the year when Wayne Rooney was sick or suspended, as those games happened to dovetail almost perfectly with Kamara being injured or unavailable. Those were both unlucky and unlikely circumstances, but we should look at this from the perspective that every team ends up with some bad luck or weird situations where the injuries pile up in one spot. The fluke is getting through the year without having your depth seriously tested, rather than that being the norm.
Again, it’s worth pointing out that United’s list of injuries isn’t actually long. To use the league’s injury report designations, Arriola and Pines are the only players you can list as truly out, with Asad questionable and Flores probable. That’s a short list, but it feels like a crunch because United’s squad is so small that any absence is immediately felt.
The funny thing here is that while Arriola’s injury hits United in several departments — top-line quality and in-game flexibility come to mind immediately — losing him doesn’t actually test United’s depth in the spots where they had concerns about being too thin. Those challenges exist whether or not he’s healthy, which means they need to be addressed whether or not he’s healthy.
Meanwhile, beyond trialists and the rumored pursuit of center back/left back Bakaye Dibassy, things are very quiet on the incoming players front. Arriola’s injury will probably see him placed on the league’s injured reserve list (which requires a minimum of six games missed), but the club doesn’t need to open a senior roster spot to make moves.
United has done a good job at remodeling their team in terms of acquiring starters who can play a different way from the approach we saw in 2019. It’s my opinion, at least, that this year’s team is likely to be more effective than last year’s. However, right now at least, it feels like D.C. is one more bit of bad luck on the in the back, or one awkward fall by a forward, away from having a real problem building any sort of early momentum in the early portion of the season.
Adding random guys who can function as adequate players at training isn’t the solution, either. Depth for the sake of depth doesn’t actually address the problem, either. Instead, United faces a tricky challenge at a fairly late stage in the preseason: now that teams have had most of preseason to bring in trialists and sign available players with MLS experience, where are depth players who actually add to the group going to come from?