It did not take long for Paul Arriola to make his way into the D.C. United team upon his arrival to the club in August. United, desperate to turn around a lost season, had no choice but to immediately insert their record signing into the team, even though he had limited time to train with his new team before a game against Real Salt Lake. But what was missing from Arriola’s first six games, were goals or assists, which United were in search of.
That’s not to say that Arriola had not fit in with his new team right away. There were lively moments, moments of promise, times where chemistry with teammates such as Luciano Acosta or Patrick Mullins or Zoltan Stieber was clearly growing. But as United suffered two crippling losses to start September, Arriola was still in search of his first tangible contribution.
Then came United’s 4-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, in which Mullins became the first player in league history to score four goals in a half. The first two came courtesy of Arriola, who provided two different types of crosses, allowing Mullins to finally score his first goals of the season.
“I thought it was a good second half. I thought we had a great first half, unfortunate not to finish some chances,” Arriola told B&RU this week, of his and his team’s performance against San Jose. “We stepped it up, and we had a great gameplan. Everyone was willing to work hard on and off the ball, and those are the types of results you’re going to get when everyone is on the same page and working hard.”
According to his Head Coach Ben Olsen, there was a slight tactical switch that directly lead to Arriola notching his first assists with the club. There wasn’t much that Olsen and his coaching staff were asking differently of Arriola, only to exploit a weakness that the Earthquakes displaying. By having Arriola play closer to the sideline, Olsen said that there would be opportunities to take advantage of a San Jose team that was playing on the edge, given their playoff outlook.
“There was a little slight change in how he went about the game. He played a touch wider, and we wanted to get him into more isolations, down towards the touchline, where he can be dangerous,” Olsen told B&RU on Monday. “We find that’s where he’s most effective, and I thought he did a good job of that, and the group did a good job of finding him in those [spots], and understanding that’s what we want to see.”
The goals themselves came about due to that width. On the first goal, United played from left to right, switching the field quickly, deep in the San Jose half. A cross field pass from Acosta found Arriola in acres of space. Arriola’s first touch then set him up for the cross. And though Mullins had been snake-bitten the entire year in front of goal, the two were on the same page, as Mullins’ run coincided perfectly with Arriola’s cross, opening the floodgates for United.
Mullins’ second goal had a bit more fortune to it, as San Jose were able to defend a pass into the box for Acosta. However, with Arriola still out wide, he received the ball with no immediate pressure, and picked out Mullins in the middle of the box, allowing the striker to tally his second goal of the night, and the season. A clear sign that Olsen’s tactical adjustment had paid off, and that the understanding between teammates was clearly growing.
“For us, it’s important to continue to build off of the good results, [build] chemistry, and find the back of the net,” said Arriola. “It’s all about the game coming up. Can we continue on that chemistry for Wednesday and Saturday? Those are the main things. Right now, it’s all about building off the last result, and look forward to Red Bulls.”
Today’s match-up gives Arriola his first taste of the Atlantic Cup rivalry against the New York Red Bulls. Though United hasn’t been officially eliminated from playoff contention, their best best for the game is to play spoiler. The Red Bulls currently hold on to the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, though with an extra game over the teams chasing them.
“The fact that we have them twice to finish off the year is exciting to us,” said Olsen, also referencing the season finale, which will be United’s final game at RFK Stadium. “It’s a challenge to make their playoff run a little bit more difficult.”
And that United is seemingly out of the playoff hunt doesn’t make this game any less important for Arriola.
“It’s a huge game for us. I’ve watched Red Bulls quite a few times, I watched them in the Open Cup Final,” said Arriola. “They are very attacking-minded, and like to press on the ball, and so that’s what we’re going to have to do. I think we have to go out there, and play similar to how we played against San Jose.”
How United played against San Jose, and in general since the acquisition of Arriola and three others at the transfer deadline has transformed how the team has played recently. The term Benny Ball has been used to describe Olsen’s tactics during his tenure with United, even though that moniker isn’t always fair. But with the addition of Arriola, Stieber, and Russell Canouse in particular, there seems to be more emphasis on possession, keeping the ball to create issues for opponents.
“We’re going to have to go out and and try to take control of the game, because sometimes for us, when we sit back, we don’t have a lot of success,” added Arriola. “Now, with the new additions, we’re a team that needs to have the ball. That’s going to be the key for us - to continue to work hard on and off the ball, and I’m sure we’ll be able to get the result if we do that.”