DC United’s Interrupted, then Horrible, then Hopeful 2020 is Over
2020 will be a year none of us will forget. Much more important things than soccer have been damaged and destroyed by the global pandemic, but that’s not our corner of the media universe (thankfully). DC United’s experience of 2020 swung wildly from disappointing to deep despair and despondency, taking a turn for the better before landing with a familiar thud this afternoon in an empty Audi Field. On a Washington DC Fall day (meaning unseasonably warm), DC United was playing with the house’s money and welcoming back it’s talisman, Paul Arriola, from a cruel ACL injury suffered in a preseason game against Orlando City. Chad Ashton, the replacement for the human embodiment of DC United’s historical heights and nadir, had the team playing in an exciting but shaky way that had delivered goals, results, and relief for the fans and probably the players. With the back and forth 4-3 loss to New England in the rear view, DC needed about 4 things to go their way and a win to somehow sneak into the expanded 2020 playoffs.
And then a funny thing happened. (Almost) Everything went right. After the weird injury of Gelman Rivas necessitated the early addition of Ola Kamara, Donovan Pines scored early, utilizing his approximately 9 foot 4 inch frame to score a header from a corner. As is tradition for the young defender, he then was backed down like he was facing Shaq in the post during his Orlando Magic days, and Bojan Krkic equalized. But this is the NEW DC United, the team that always has a riposte, not the old DC United that would concede and then spend the rest of the game listening to the Cure and cutting holes in their jeans. Ola Kamara (yes, that’s right, leading scorer of 2020 Ola Kamara) scored off yet another corner to give DC the lead. The seas then parted, and every result that needed to go their way went their way. All they needed to do was see it through and the improbable dice roll would come up 7 and the team would sneak in the back door into the playoffs.
It turns out that a makeshift defense, utilizing a defensive midfielder who is usually stuck at RB playing in the middle and missing the captain and other starting center back, starting left back, and the remaining first choice center back playing perpetually hobbled, cannot hold forever. Romell Quioto beat the aforementioned out of place Russell Canouse for a goal off of a corner. Quioto slammed the door shut in the 88th minute, with a stretched and tired DC United out of position and unable to put up a resistance.
It almost didn’t end like this. Arriola had a chance or two to write a fairy tale end to his journey back from the trainer’s table but with no game time in 9 months, he was unable to convert his chances. Watching him slide all over the place was simultaneously cathartic and harrowing, each move eliciting a sharp inhale and a crossed finger or two. That was ratcheted up a few notches when Samuel Piette attempted to vivisect Arriola’s leg, leaving Paul howling on the ground and grabbing his recently repaired knee. After VAR confirmed what every single person who was watching knew was a red card, DCU fandom collectively exhaled as Arriola was able to finish out the game.
I said before the game:
This team was rightfully left for dead by EVERYONE with multiple 4 goal losses suffered in a short span and a look of collective dread anytime they conceded (and that occurred frequently). But then, Ben Olsen was fired and the players all simultaneously looked like they drank the Secret Stuff from Spacejam. Sure, they COULD have easily seen this game out and snuck into the playoffs where they would have almost certainly been roadkill to a top seed, but that they didn’t do that has no bearing on how I’m feeling about this team. Because the season’s over now, I’ll have a lot more time to get into my thoughts about this year and about where the team needs to improve to be a factor in the near and medium term. But for now, I’m thankful a DC United game no longer feels like a negative foregone conclusion and hopeful about where this team could go next year.