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D.C. United season review: Paul Arriola

Is the Black-and-Red’s record transfer ready to be the face of the club?

Even now, two and a half months later, D.C. United’s decision to spend over $3 million in real-life money to acquire USMNT winger Paul Arriola from Club Tijuana still feels like a surprise. We all knew intellectually that United would be spending on players to open Audi Field in 2018, but was anyone expecting this big of a move — and for a young player rather than an over-30 big name that would move jerseys — well ahead of the first game at the Black-and-Red’s new home?

Arriola’s move to the District wasn’t just about money, but make no mistake: that’s a big part of this deal. United surely overpaid for Arriola, especially once you throw in the half a million worth of Targeted Allocation Money sent to the LA Galaxy thanks to some ill-conceived MLS rules. That said, it’s laudable that United, after years of appearing to settle for whatever was left when it came to transfers, was suddenly so decisive and determined to land their man. I’m not sure too many fans would raise a fuss if club owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levein signed off on a few more deals in which United paid over the top to acquire talented, in-demand players. That big transfer fee is a problem for their financial advisors, not for our favorite soccer team.

That money comes with pressure to produce, and the phrase “the final product” has come up an awful lot with the 22 year old. Arriola finished the season with 1 goal and 2 assists in 11 appearances (all starts), which projects out to about 3 goals/6 assists given a full regular season. However, those numbers are skewed by a) Arriola finding himself on a new team in a league he has never played in before, and b) by said new team being a struggling club in need of help up front and an offseason to improve their collective state of mind. It seems safe to think that under better circumstances, those numbers improve.

The question fans will have, of course, is “how much?” United’s investment in Arriola, in terms of the salary cap, is the same kind of hit that Montreal gives up for Ignacio Piatti, or that the Galaxy work around so they can have Romain Alessandrini. Wingers have to be putting goals and assists up on the board to justify a DP’s budget cost, and those two set the standard. Piatti has had back-to-back 17 goal/6 assist seasons, while Alessandrini (on the league’s worst team, and dealing with the occasional knock) put up 13 and 12.

Those are perhaps not the best examples, as Arriola is a true, chalk-on-his-boots wide man while Piatti and Alessandrini both cut inside far more frequently. On top of that, they’re in their prime, and their teams are built to feed them the ball. The Black-and-Red attack is built around Luciano Acosta; Arriola doesn’t have the same share of the touches, nor is United asking him to be the #1 threat in a given game. Still, it’s a valid point: can Arriola produce the numbers that justify taking up such a substantial portion of the salary cap?

Smart people seem to think so. Arriola placed 9th in MLS’s 24 Under 24 despite signing with United just before the voting for that award closed, and appears to have won himself a solid position within the USMNT. There are also some good underlying numbers pointing to more assists to come, as Arriola averaged 1.5 key passes per game. Only three D.C. players posted more, and those three (Zoltan Stieber, Lloyd Sam, and Luciano Acosta) all take free kicks; Arriola does not.

Digging deeper, has Arriola producing 1.8 successful dribbles per game, which is second on the team behind Acosta (who lead all of MLS with 2.6). That rate is the fifth-highest in all of MLS among players who made more than 10 appearances, and fielding two players who are so dangerous in that department indicates that Arriola is a good fit for when Ben Olsen is trying to do going forward.

From an eye test perspective, it seems safe to say that Arriola is precisely the kind of player Olsen wants. He’s got a tremendous engine and never gives up on plays, and he’s hard to play against. Arriola is, frankly, a pain in the ass for opponents. His ability to simply out-work opponents makes him a match-up problem for opposing left backs, and it also makes life so much easier for his teammates on both sides of the ball.

In other words, he’s the kind of player who makes his whole team better in ways that will be especially clear in games where he’s unavailable. We will almost certainly hear him referred to as “a glue guy” or as “the connective tissue” for United in 2018, which is code for the kind of player who is vitally important without necessarily catching the eye. That’s really the next step for Arriola: combining the yeoman’s work he already does very well with the game-winning goals and assists a Designated Player is charged with producing.

I suspect I already know the answer to this question, but let’s do it anyway:


Do you want Paul Arriola back for the 2018 season?

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