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Paul Arriola // Photo: courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United Has Playoffs On Their Mind

As the calendar turned to August, D.C. United sat in third place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference but were right in the thick of the race – sitting only a few points out of the top spot. A lock to make the playoffs, the team has been coming on strong this summer, going 3-2-5 (adding 14 points) in its last 10 contests and making a run for first.

Midfielder Paul Arriola, whose name is consistently brought up in transfer talk, is in his third year with the team and has proven a vital squad player under head coach Ben Olsen’s scheme.

“It’s been a better first half of the season than it was last year, which was my first full year, and we had this great second-half run at Audi Field,” Arriola says. “Having had so many home games this year, we’ve gotten a taste of what a real MLS season is like. There’s times the ball is going your way and the refs are calling it your way, but then there are times we can’t buy a goal or other teams are playing better than us.”

That rollercoaster ride is something all soccer players experience, and he knows the team is capable of being on the fun, upswing side of that journey as the year goes on. Arriola will be counted on to help D.C. United in its championship run after coming off a strong showing for the U.S. National Team in the Gold Cup.

“We’ve put ourselves in a great spot to be in the playoffs,” he says. “We’re not in the do-or-die situation we were in last year in the second half, but we feel we will get those big results. Last year, it took me about three months to feel like myself as a player because of the long off-season. But this year, with hard training, I came out of the blocks really hot – first with the National Team and now with United. I’ve played a very versatile role so far and [am] happy with what I’ve done, but not content.”

The team’s offense is led by former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, sporting a brilliant season with a team high of 11 goals and seven assists in league play this year. He also recorded two goals and an assist in two Open Cup games and is proving why he’s an international sensation.

Luciano Acosta has chipped in five goals, midfielder Lucas Rodriguez has four and Arriola has scored four himself. On defense, the team is counting on Leonardo Jara, Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brilliant to keep the opposition in check as the offense does what it’s capable of doing. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid is having a fine season, with 88 saves and eight shutouts in 115 shots faced, accounting for an 8-6-8 record through the team’s first 22 games.

Midfielder Russell Canouse has been with D.C. United since 2017 and racked up a career high 1,634 minutes already for the team. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania native is known for his passing accuracy and considered one of the top passers in the league.

“The past month, we left some points on the table that we should have gotten, but we have 11 games left,” Canouse says. “I expect us to pick up some points, and our goal is to have home-field advantage for the playoffs. Our recent win against Cincinnati was an important one for us because that gave us a lot of confidence. Another big result was the Orlando game where Wayne hit the 65-yard goal.”

As the new home for D.C. United, Audi Field has been everything the players had hoped for and more – and Arriola is loving the Audi Field vibe.

“The fans push us – not just myself, but as a team,” he says. “When I look around the stadium and see the amount of people wearing an Arriola jersey, [it’s] amazing. The way [our fans] support the team and never give up on us, that’s something a lot of teams don’t get. They are definitely special to us.”

To bolster the roster in the second half, the team recently added former University of Maryland standout attacker Gordon Wild, and he’s expected to provide some strong firepower in the final two months. The team also brought in former USMNT midfielder Jose Torres on a trial basis, in case an injury or transfer occurs in the next couple of weeks.

“Our team chemistry is only getting stronger,” Canouse says. “Guys are starting to understand how much quality we have on the team and what we can achieve. We find ourselves in a good spot. Ben has done a great job keeping us levelheaded.”

Arriola is optimistic but sees room for improvement in the coming months.

“There’s work to be done and we’re tying a lot of games, but we almost hit a wall where we weren’t able to win games,” he says. “The key for the rest of the season is to find our identity and collectively understand who we are and the type of team we are. In the end, it’s going to take a player to make a big play every single game. But if we stay true to ourselves, we can do what we need to do.”

For more information on the remainder of D.C. United’s 2019 season, which runs through October 6, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.dcunited.com

Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United: Rocking The District from Day One

Fans will fill the 20,000 seats, angled European-style toward a pitch made of natural grass, on March 3 to usher in the first full season of Major League Soccer at Audi Field. During D.C. United’s abbreviated first season in its new surroundings, the team drew an average of 18,929 fans across 15 home games and treated them to a 12-2-1 record. The extraordinary support echoes the success of the franchise’s rallying cry “Unite the District,” which will return as a prominent marketing strategy entering spring.

“An unbelievably fiesta-style atmosphere,” says D.C. United’s vice president of events and marketing Harry Hardy when describing the fans during home games. “They’re singing songs for 90 minutes. Audi Field is becoming a fortress for us.”

In an attempt to buttress enthusiasm, D.C. United will offer a slew of promotions early in the season. The move is in part a way of mitigating the rush of fans into the stadium just before game time.

“Things like discounts on your beer [and] food if you come early to the game,” Hardy elaborates.

He adds that the club has added entry points so people can get into the building sooner, “putting a huge premium on wait times.”

Opening day features a major attraction with Audi Field welcoming the defending MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United FC. And on April 9, the team will host a Cherry Blossom-themed game – the first Tuesday night game in MLS history, according to Hardy.

This year, the club has added shading elements to the west stands since discovering the sun beats down on that area of the stadium. Those who salivate over game day concessions will be pleased to know that José Andrés’  ThinkFoodGroup will continue its operations and David Chang’s Fuku brand – with its take on fried chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders – begins its rookie year as a food provider at Audi Field.

Despite the immediate success on the pitch, the tantalizing food and beverage offerings, and the raucous reception from the DC community, the transition to a new stadium didn’t come easily for all the players last year.

“When we moved into Audi in the summer, it was a little [bit of an] awkward change for not just us players but for everyone,” midfielder Russell Canouse says.

Some of the awkwardness stemmed from an unusual schedule. During the wait for Audi Field to open, D.C. United was forced to spend much of the early season on the road.

“I’m most excited about probably not having to go on the road for four months straight,” says center back Steve Birnbaum, his sunny California voice breathing relief.

However, as evidenced by the club’s strong record after move-in day, Audi Field wound up becoming a major advantage.

“Just playing in front of the home fans gave me a lot of confidence to go out and do my best,” Canouse says. “I think the same goes for everyone else. It’s hard to describe in words how important it is to have their support.”

Hardy adds that the front office comes into work every day with the “Unite the District” vision in mind. He references the playoff game against Columbus in October – a crushing loss in penalties – when thousands of DC sports fans were singing together in support of a common cause. During the dog days of summer and the grind of a playoff run, that sort of energy can help rally a squad.

Nevertheless, the team’s performance on the pitch will ultimately determine whether D.C. United reaches its first MLS Cup since 2004.

“We have a lot of belief in ourselves as a team,” Birnbaum says, his tone matter-of-fact. “With Audi Field at the heart of the city, we feel as though we can compete for a championship.”

D.C. United opens its 2019 season on Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m. against Atlanta United FC. For ticket information, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com