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D.C. United isn’t going to catch anyone by surprise this year. Last season’s second-half surge may have been even better than anticipated following the arrival of Wayne Rooney and the debut of Audi Field, but the players expect immediate success in 2019.
Rated as one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, D.C. United passed an early test on Sunday when it took on defending champion Atlanta United in its season opener at a rainy and frigid home arena. In front of an announced crowd of 16,942, Paul Arriola and last season’s breakout star, Luciano Acosta, both scored goals to beat Atlanta, 2-0.
“We picked up, fortunately, a little bit where we left off,” head coach Ben Olsen said after the game.
The team can credit its continuity for the seamless transition into the new season. United started nine of the 11 players on Sunday that began last season’s playoff defeat to Columbus and the newcomers didn’t need much time to adjust. The club’s recent additions, midfielder Lucas Rodriguez and right back Leonardo Jara, both turned in promising debuts against the defending champions.
“I thought they both had really good nights,” Olsen said. “Lucas in particular, I think you see his qualities, he’s a lot of fun to watch. He’s fearless. He finds nice pockets. He’s under control with the ball. He’s got a nice tempo about him.”
With Jara now in the mix, Arriola will likely be able to play his more natural right midfield position and focus primarily on attacking.
He did that to devastating effect on Sunday, creating several chances with his pace and vision in the final third, and also added a first-half goal from close range off a corner kick.
“[I have] a lot of confidence,” Arriola said. “I know my team always has my back so it’s a good situation, I’m very comfortable out there and I’m looking to build on that.”
With Arriola in a full-time midfield role, United will be that much tougher to handle for opposing defenses, who will already have to focus plenty of attention on the team’s two greatest attacking threats from last season.
Rooney and Acosta created a dynamic partnership in 2018 and there will be an added sense of urgency to win a championship this season, as it’s shaping up to be Acosta’s last with United.
The Argentine nearly completed an offseason move to French champion Paris Saint-Germain, only to see the transfer collapse at the last minute. The move was so close to completion that Acosta flew to Paris to finalize the deal.
His contract is now its final season. United is doing all it can to sign Acosta to a long-term extension, but the 24-year-old could very well choose to run down his contract before trying his luck overseas after the season ends.
Acosta didn’t sulk after the potentially life-changing transfer to Europe fell through. Instead, he wanted to go play in D.C. United’s preseason game the next day.
“He’s been fantastic since he came back,” Rooney said of Acosta. ”When the transfer didn’t go through I was a bit surprised he was on the flight straight back to Florida to meet up with us.
“He wanted to play in the game the next day … Ben wouldn’t let him with the flying.”
Rooney is eager to see his strike partner carry on at the club, but as a veteran of the English Premier League, he also knows that the call from Europe may be too much to resist.
“He needs to keep performing well,” Rooney said. “If he’s going to get a move to a big club in Europe, he has to perform. It’s as simple as that … We all obviously want him to stay come the end of the year but we understand if a move happens, it happens and we have to move on. But for now we’re delighted he’s here, he’s a fantastic player.”
Life without Acosta is a prospect no D.C. United fan wants to ponder, but at least it’s unlikely to be a reality until 2020. That’s why in 2019, the team has just one goal in mind.
“For us anything less than a championship is disappointing,” Arriola said.