The rain intensified throughout the second half of Sunday night's game between D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City, while United's hopes of three points seemed to slip away at Audi Field.
Tim Melia made a couple of crucial saves, while a couple of other opportunities went missing for the Black-and-Red. United need a moment of magic it seemed, and finally got it in the 78th minute. But it wasn't from Wayne Rooney or Luciano Acosta, the usual suspects. Instead, it was Paul Arriola, who made the most of a small chance, to smash home a sumptuous goal for a 1-0 win over SKC.
It was Arriola's second goal in as many games and gave United three points to help them keep pace with the Philadelphia Union atop the Eastern Conference.
"I made good contact, and that’s a goal you dream about," Arriola told reporters after the game in the locker room.
Sporting, with only 15 available players for the game because of injuries and international call-ups, gave United a tough battle for 90 minutes. While Steven Birnbaum had a couple of chances on headers from corner kicks, great goal-scoring opportunities for the hosts were few and far between. And when he was needed, Melia made several important interventions, keeping the Black-and-Red off the board.
But that wasn't enough on the night, as Arriola cut in from the left wing and smashed a shot past Melia, who couldn't keep the shot out, despite getting his hands to it.
"I don’t think we got frustrated with ourselves," head coach Ben Olsen said after the game, talking about how United kept plugging away during the game, despite not scoring. "We kept going after it, and Paul makes a terrific play. It needed a special play tonight, and Paul gave it to us."
Arriola, who usually celebrates his goals by mimicking a bird, this time removed his cleat and used it as a phone. It was a tribute to his father, who passed away during the 2018 season. After the game, the USA winger changed into a t-shirt that had a picture of him and his mom together, an ode to her on Mother's Day.
"I wanted to make them both feel special today," Arriola said.
With Donovan Pines out due to injury, Olsen moved back to his favored 4-2-3-1 formation, after using a three center back set up in the past weeks. That meant a start at left back for Marquinhos Pedroso, who joined the club last week from FC Dallas. In moving to the back four though, Olsen was able to keep Acosta, Arriola, and Lucas Rodriguez further forward where they are more dangerous.
And it made a difference on the night, with Arriola scoring the goal.
"Offensively, you could tell there were some real sequences there where things were clicking and there was a real understanding of where players needed to be," Olsen said of reverting back to the 4-2-3-1 formation. "Russell [Canouse] and Junior [Moreno] had a good relationship centrally, and now we’re able to find Lucas and Wayne and Paul in particular in the pockets in and around. That’s a product of the 4-2-3-1."
And while Olsen said that Arriola continues to need to be the third scoring threat for the Black-and-Red, to help ease the pressure on Rooney and Acosta, the English striker had a slightly different take, saying that the U.S. international shouldn't be considered a third option.
"Paul is a bit better than a third option," Rooney said after the game. "He’s a fantastic player for us, and he gives us great energy. It was a lovely finish. He executed it fantastically, and it’s a big goal for us coming into this week."
United now face two tough away trips this week, both coming after just two days' rest. First, it's a trip to take on Toronto FC on Wednesday, and then going to Texas to face the Houston Dynamo on Saturday. Not easy by any stretch, but the two consecutive wins at home might help United remain confident to pick up wins away from the District.
"Behind closed doors, these were very important points to pick up," Olsen said. "To get these six points, going into this road [trip] gives us confidence, but we understand, you’re going to Toronto and a tough environment in Houston. Two of the best teams in the league right now. It’ll be tough."