For Saturday's match against Real Salt Lake, United midfielder Paul Arriola started in a different position than usual, slotting inside as a central midfielder alongside Luciano Acosta versus lining up in the right wing spot he typically holds. Despite the change in positioning, Arriola logged arguably his best game of the season thus far, as he scored his first goal of 2018 and provided crucial energy in the midfield to clog up passing lanes and slow down Salt Lake's man advantage.
“Personally, I found myself more confident in the position that I played today," Arriola said after the match. "It gave me a little bit more freedom and with a loss like this where we were down a man and we continued to push, in the end I think we could have easily tied the game up with a good cross or a good finish."
While there was frustration with the final result and the inability to take advantage of the early lead, Arriola showed signs of improvement in Salt Lake, consistently making his presence felt in the midfield. The 23-year-old used his relentless work rate to interfere with Real's build-up play and got more involved in the final third, tallying two shots and scoring to put United on the board first.
In the 9th minute, Zoltán Stieber stepped up to take a corner kick for United and sent a ball toward the center of the box, where an unmarked Arriola made a trailing run from outside the top of the box toward the center spot. The midfielder one-timed Stieber's corner with the inside of his left foot, beating Salt Lake's Nick Rimando to the keeper's right and giving the Black-and-Red the advantage.
The first goal of 2018 was a welcome relief for Arriola, after the midfielder fired shots against Kansas City, Columbus, Houston, and Orlando, but failed to convert his chances. The 9th-minute score also continued United's trend of getting on the scoreboard quickly—Ulises Segura scored in the 1st minute against Columbus, and Stieber scored in the 7th minute against Philadelphia. Now, the next step for the Black-and-Red is translating those fiery starts and fast goals into 90-minute performances and points.
“The past three games we’ve come out and scored first early on in the game," Arriola said. "We make it a point to come out into the game and provide energy and get the early goal and we’ve been able to do that. Now the question is how do we keep the lead throughout the game."
As United focus on finding solutions to picking up points during their extended road trip, Arriola will also look to up his work rate and become a primary playmaker for head coach Ben Olsen. The midfielder has two assists on the season (against Columbus in Annapolis and against Houston at the SoccerPlex), but will push to become a 2018 leader in the goals, assists, and chances created columns for D.C.
Up next for Arriola and the Black-and-Red are the San Jose Earthquakes, who currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference with a 2-5-2 record. The Quakes haven't recorded a shutout yet this year, and Arriola and his fellow attackmen will look to take advantage of a back line that has conceded in every match.
In last year's lone fixture against the Earthquakes, Patrick Mullins bagged four goals in one half, with Arriola providing him two assists during the 4-0 rout. After effectively picking apart the Earthquakes' back line last September, Arriola will attempt to garner momentum from his strong Salt Lake performance and again be a thorn in San Jose's side.
"I’m very confident with my teammates and what we can achieve in San Jose and elsewhere," Arriola said.
Tune in to NewsChannel 8 and CW Richmond at 10 PM ET on Saturday to watch as Arriola and United attempt to make it back-to-back victories over the Quakes.