For Paul Arriola and D.C. United, persevering through the end of a difficult season only guaranteed one more crushing moment, one that arrived late Sunday afternoon when the Black-and-Red gave back a lead in a 3-2 defeat to the Montreal Impact.
For D.C., it was seeing the most unlikely of playoff berths slip beyond their grasp with late goals from Montreal's Victor Wanyama and Romell Quioto. A tie would've done no good. But with a fourth win in five matches, the Black-and-Red could've snagged the 10th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and rescued a season that at one point was dire enough to force out longtime manager and club legend Ben Olsen.
"It’s obviously heartbreaking," said interim coach Chad Ashton. "We’ve been decimated by injuries all year, and I give the group such great credit for showing such character to hang in there and find a way to get us to today."
For Arriola, who was the first of those injuries, it was scrapping and clawing through rehab from a torn ACL suffered in preseason, to return just in time to watch triumph turn to tragedy. Arriola entered in the 69th minute with a 2-1 lead that soon unraveled.
"It’s mixed feelings, you know," Arriola said. "Obviously it’s great to be back, but at the same time, it probably hurts even harder than usual, because I worked so hard, and you kind of hold onto that hope of making the playoffs. So for us to not be able to do that is disappointing, and obviously now we wait until next year."
What happens next on Potomac Avenue is unclear. According to reports, the hiring process for the club's next manager appears to be in the preliminary stages. But it's fair to guess there will be some roster turnover, even if D.C.'s 2020 struggles were as much health as personnel.
Arriola signed a long-term contract extension in July, but recognized there may be some teammates with whom he suited up for the last time.
"The reality is it’s hard to go two years with the same personnel on a professional team," he said. "So for us, it was obviously, how can we enjoy the moment and understand that this could be it for us. But I’m extremely proud of the team and the way that we were able to get to decision day."
If there was a bright side to those injury issues, it opened a door for a growing corps of promising Homegrown Player signings like Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes and Griffin Yow. And while the group might not be entirely the same in 2021, those and some others have maybe helped build momentum to the new year.
"The group is going to be fine moving forward," Ashton said of this late-season charge. "It shows great character. It’s the building blocks of a foundation that creates culture. These guys are still in the process of creating that culture, but I believe the group took a lot of steps toward creating that."