For much of the season, D.C. United coach Ben Olsen tinkered with his lineup and formation to find the proper mixture of attacking and defending, discipline and ingenuity. He worked his way through a rash of late spring and early summer injuries, plus the sporadic absence of star striker Wayne Rooney, to settle on a 4-2-3-1 formation rooted in resilient defending and, he hoped, lethal finishing on counter attacks.
Winger Paul Arriola became a linchpin to the system’s late-season success, though not in his customary position out on the flanks. Instead, Olsen entrusted Arriola to replace Luciano Acosta at the No. 10 position toward the middle of the field and handed wingers Lucas Rodriguez and Ulises Segura a steady run of games on the left and right, respectively.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Arriola said late in the year. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I have the freedom to go anywhere but I tend to float around. Obviously I’m more comfortable out wide in situations and just kind of — it does give me the opportunity to read the game a little bit better and kind of pick a side to overload and see where we have more possibilities.
“Obviously I like it because the guys that we have up top are very dynamic. Last game with Ulises and Lucas, there’s times when Lucas is coming in and I’m staying wide, Ulises is in the middle and I’m on the right. And then, you know, it’s fun because then you have Wayne dropping a little deep. Fun and also challenging because at some point we’re not really playing with a No. 9, so someone always has to fill that role.
“I’m getting more comfortable being able to stay in pockets, find the ball and turn and run at players, which is obviously what you kind of want from your No. 10.”
The idea worked in large part because of the resolute defense behind them, but the two-way effort of players like Arriola, Rodriguez and Segura cannot be dismissed. They labored tirelessly without the ball and gave United a chance offensively in games when possession often favored the opposition.
It’s far too early to guess what the formation will look like in 2020, when Olsen can start fresh from a level playing field, so for now we reflect on this year’s roster before general manager Dave Kasper unveils a new one in the coming months.
This is the third in a series of stories analyzing the Black-and-Red position by position. Next up, the wingers.
Segura took a positive step forward in his second season with the club by appearing in 33 games with 19 starts and increasing his minutes played from 1,292 a year ago to 1,788 in 2019. He bounced in and out of the starting lineup and enjoyed two sustained periods in Olsen’s strongest eleven: from May 15 to July 4, when he started eight consecutive matches, and from Aug. 11 through the end of the season, when he started all but one. Though Segura had fewer shots on target this season (7) than last season (8), he still increased his productivity in the final third. A year ago, Segura created one chance every 80.8 minutes and drove one cross into the penalty area every 86.1 minutes. This season, those numbers improved to one chance every 74.5 minutes and one cross every 48.3 minutes as Segura provided a more consistent outlet down the right flank. He also finished fifth on the team in key passes to demonstrate his quality and vision. The next step for Segura will be driving at defenses to produce goals and assists more frequently for the Black-and-Red. Segura was the only winger or forward on the roster to finish with a negative average passing distance (-0.9 yards) this season, according to American Soccer Analysis, and his production was somewhat lopsided: Of his 3 goals and 2 assists in 2019, all but one of them came prior to June 1. Nonetheless, there were moments in training and in games when Segura demonstrated real potential as a two-way winger with plenty of room to grow.
As players come and go through various leagues around the world, the majority of them require a bit of time to get settled. Moving to a new country with a new language, unfamiliar teammates and fresh surroundings can be a lot to handle for someone 21 years old. Rodriguez, who arrived on loan from Estudiantes de La Plata in Argentina, found his footing as the season went along and finished strongly with 5 goals and 1 assist from July 18 through the playoffs. He wound up second on the team in goals with 7 and ranked third in assists with 3 while playing the most minutes (2,707) of any attacking player. Rodriguez proved adept at turning difficult chances into goals, evidenced by his mark of +2.2 goals above the expected goal (xG) average. That figure led United and ranked eighth in MLS among attackers, trailing only Carlos Vela (+8.3), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (+6.5), Josef Martinez (+6.2), Pedro Santos (+5.7), Diego Rossi (+5), Alejandro Pozuelo (+2.8) and Felipe Gutierrez (+2.3). Another category in which Rodriguez excelled was duels. He ranked 4th in the league in duels (418) among midfielders with at least 1,000 minutes played and 10th in duel success rate (58.9%) among that same group. An area of his game that still needs polishing is shooting accuracy, where Rodriguez lagged behind United’s other attackers. Just 12 of his 41 shot attempts were on target this season for a 29.3% clip. By comparison, Rooney (32%), Arriola (37%) and Acosta (33%) were all more accurate than Rodriguez. What’s particularly exciting, though, is the breadth of skills Rodriguez has showed at such a young age, and he doesn’t turn 23 until next April. A recent callup to Argentina’s U-23 squad reflects his long-term potential as a quality winger for both club and country.
One of the most versatile players at Olsen’s disposal, Arriola logged minutes at left wing, right wing, center attacking mid and right back over the course of the season. He never turned down an assignment and never complained about taking on more defensive responsibilities at the expense of goal-scoring opportunities. Arriola appeared in 29 games with 28 starts and played 2,433 minutes during the regular season, roughly 300 more than 2018. His tally of 6 goals was virtually identical to the 7 he managed in 2018, while his assists dipped from 8 last year to 2 this year. It should be noted, however, that his expected assist (xA) total was 3.5, according to American Soccer Analysis, which suggests several missed chances by the Black-and-Red after quality setups from Arriola. With his tremendous pace and willingness to work, Arriola tends to perform best on the flank when he can run in behind defenders, evidenced by the 10th-most crosses among MLS midfielders this season. He also led United in shots on counter attacks with six, including a goal. He finished second on the team behind Rodriguez in goals above xG with a mark of +0.9, placing Arriola in the top 20 in MLS. However, Arriola made clear his desire to become a more clinical finisher in the final third and capitalize on his ability to take up intelligent positions. His tally of six big chances missed in 2019 was tied for the eighth-most in the league by a midfielder. Toward the end of the season, when Arriola shifted into the No. 10 role, he demonstrated the tactical prowess and gas tank to anchor United’s defensive press.
Arriving via trade in early August, the 25-year-old Boateng was a sparsely used substitute for the remainder of the season. He made three appearances totaling 51 minutes for the Black-and-Red and played just seven minutes from Aug. 31 through the playoffs. At his best, Boateng is a pacey winger capable of running behind defenders, just as he did after entering the league with the LA Galaxy in 2016. But he had fallen out of the starting lineup for much of the last two seasons in Los Angeles and was looking for a fresh start when the deal with United was consummated prior to the transfer window closing.
Yow made two appearances for the Black-and-Red this season prior to his 17th birthday. He was used as a brief substitute during a 2-0 loss to New York City FC in April and then earned his first start against FC Dallas on July 4. Yow was on the bench for many of United’s matches during the first half of the season before the club shifted his focus to Loudoun United. He scored 3 goals in 13 starts for the USL side.
Gordon Wild — The Black-and-Red signed Wild, a former Maryland standout, in late July after his time with Atlanta United came to an end. Though he practiced with United’s first team quite frequently, Wild never featured for Olsen and spent the majority of his time with Loudoun, where he proved to be a capable goal scorer. Wild finished second on the team with 11 goals in 24 appearances for Loudoun and also chipped in 3 assists. Of his 21 shots on target, 52% of them found the back of the net. Wild turned 24 in mid-October.
Part 1 — Strikers
Part 2 — Central midfielders