Paul Arriola on the ball-RSL-DC-5.12.18
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Arriola wants to be DC United's man in the middle

WASHINGTON – When a red card suspension forced Paul Arriola out of D.C. United’s visit to the Philadelphia Union last month, the 23-year-old Designated Player embraced his task in training – impersonate Union captain Alejandro Bedoya with the second team in scrimmages against the starting XI.

Matchday came and United suffered a 3-2 loss in Chester. And yet when training resumed, D.C. United coach Ben Olsen slotted Arriola centrally again in preparations for another trip, this to Real Salt Lake.

That’s when Arriola tells MLSSoccer.com he spoke up.

“It was either Monday or Tuesday of last week leading up to the RSL game,” said Arriola, who had played primarily as a right winger since signing for D.C.. “I pulled [Olsen] aside afterward. And I said, ‘Hey look, I don’t know if the plan is to play me there or not, but I promise you if you play me there I’ll be the best player on the field.’”

Olsen listened, swapping Arriola and Ulises Segura in D.C.’s 4-1-4-1. Arriola scored his first goal of the season to give D.C. an early lead.

And although United suffered another 3-2 defeat, that owed largely to right back Joseph Mora’s 25th-minute dismissal, D.C. finished trailing only 17-14 in shots and 8-7 in attempts on goal despite playing most of the game down a man.

“Even with 10 men, we were out there for 65 minutes of the game, just grinding, and still pressuring,” Arriola said. “And I think it was a different D.C. United team than people have seen in the past seven games. One that wasn’t scared to go and risk it.”

Olsen also left Utah believing his US international midfielder had lived up to his word.

“I thought Paul was the best player on the field,” Olsen said. “I thought he was active, connected a bunch of passes. He was scrappy, won a bunch of duels. He did a good job of making their backs feel uncomfortable.”

With Segura sidelined 6-8 weeks with a sprained knee, and Ian Harkes last seeing MLS action on March 24, it appears Olsen will stay with Arriola as a No. 8 for the immediate future.

“He played well when we put him in there, so I don’t see a huge reason to change him,” Olsen said. “But he is versatile, and he’s played wide his whole life. So if it makes sense to play him somewhere else, we’ll do that.”

Arriola says he’s played some central midfield back in his days in Liga MX side Tijuana’s 5-3-2 formation.

With D.C., he knows a central role gives him a chance to put a greater stamp on the team until expected big-name help arrives in the summer, though it also brings more responsibility.

“It forces me to be a lot sharper,” Arriola said. “Because the midfielder that plays in the middle, the balls that you lose are a lot more meaningful than if you’re losing a ball out wide, 50 yards from your goal.”