Commentary

Paul Arriola takes advantage of opportunities for USA

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

On and off the field, fast starts are normal for Paul Arriola.

He scored a goal in his first game for Club Tijuana in 2013 in an exhibition against Club America. Two weeks later, in his first Liga MX game, he registered an assist. His first U.S. callup last spring resulted in a goal against Puerto Rico, and last month he marked his first competitive cap by scoring against Trinidad & Tobago.

So for the USA senior team, the former U-17, U-20, and U-23 has kept up the pace of doing well right off the bat.

“It’s just something I’ve been able to do in my career,” says the 21-year-old who grew up near the Mexican border in Chula Vista, Calif., and plays for the pro team closest to his hometown. “I can’t explain it. I’d love to do it every game if I could but it’s one of the things I’m very grateful for: that when the debuts have come, I’ve been able to take advantage of that. It’s kind of pushed me to where I’m at.”

Where’s he at is typical of younger players, no matter how smashing their debuts. He’s gone through good phases and lean times at Tijuana, which has qualified for the Liga MX playoffs for just the second time in the seven Apertura and Clausura seasons since he signed a pro contract. He’s only recently been given the opportunity by U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to follow up on his success at the U-17 and U-20 levels, which might never have happened if Tijuana head coach Miguel Herrera hadn’t turned to a few younger players to pull the team out of a tailspin.

He’d been scrapping for starts under Herrera’s predecessors, but the former Mexican international and national-team coach used him in the starting lineup for the last eight games of the 2016 Clausura (spring) season. Arriola played in his regular position on the right wing, as well at defensive mid and right back. He also started five of seven games in the Copa MX and scored a goal.

“Before last season I wasn’t much of a starter,” says Arriola of his first few years as a pro. “I think I had about 40 games and maybe five starts during three years. When [Herrera] first showed up last season the club was in a tough situation and we dug ourselves into an even bigger hole, but at the same time that allowed him to give younger guys some chances and to earn starting spots.

“Of course, I earned it, but at the end of the day without his say it wouldn’t have happened. I’m very grateful for the opportunity he’s given me, because I don’t think without last season I’d be in the situation where I’m at right now with the national team.”

The injury withdrawal of Alejandro Bedoya, the first-choice on the right side of midfield, puts Arriola potentially in a very good situation for the friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand. Yet it was Bedoya who made the play for Arriola to score his first U.S. goal against Puerto Rico.

“I remember Bedoya going down the right side, which is where I usually am,” he recalls. “It was completely reversed for the first time in my career. Bedoya’s down the line on the right side and he plays it right across the goal and it got all the way to the back and I was there. It took a little bounce right before I went to kick it and thankfully it didn’t bounce too much where I blasted it over, but I finished it from two yards out.”

His U.S. first goal was the last goal of a very low-key 3-1 victory on a hot day against an exhausted foe. One of seven players named for the Puerto Rico game not selected for the ensuing Copa America Centenario, he went back to Chula Vista instead of to the big cities for the big games.

Yet when a few months later, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann named his team for the last two semifinal-round qualifiers against St. Vincent & The Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago, his name was on the list. He sat out the first game, then got on the field and scored against T&T.

“I was able to connect on it really easily with my left foot and put it in,” he says. “Everyone could see how excited I was and how lucky and fortunate I was to be there. I think it was a reward for how I did at that camp. I had a great camp in terms as far as training.”

One of his teammates concurred with that assessment.

“Paul Arriola stuck out for me in training all week. He deserved his chance to play tonight and when he came in he got another goal,” said Sacha Kljestan. “He always seemed to make plays around the goal. He’s good with his left and his right foot. He works his butt off. Some days in training they have to play him as a right back when he’s more of an attacker. Puts his head down, works his butt off and then when he gets his chances around the goal he buries them.”

Though he grew up in a heavily Hispanic area surrounded by friends and teammates who spoke Spanish, and is descended from great grandparents who moved north from Mexico, Arriola says he’s always felt American. He’s been involved with U.S. youth teams since he was 14, attended the Residency Program in Florida, and played for the L.A. Galaxy academy team before signing with Xolos.

“I actually played with the Baja California team, the state team, when I was about 12 years old, before I was ever with a U.S. team,” he says. “I remember it was a fine experience. I didn’t speak Spanish at the time so that was kind of weird. But as soon as I started to make the national team I was all USA.

“My first season at Xolos I was doing so well I believe I got a callup from the U-18 Mexico team, and my director at Tijuana said ‘No, no, this guy is an American,' and they didn’t tell me until after they declined. I kind of lived off that, being isolated as that American surrounded by Mexicans and Hispanics as far as in school and on my team. I was one of the few Americans.”

He’s also one of the few Americans in the U.S. pool willing and able to take players on, something like what Christian Pulisic, who is four years younger, has brought to the team. Herrera and Klinsmann are very different in their personalities and philosophies but they do share a mindset that in the attacking third, risks are be encouraged, not avoided.

At 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, Arriola is the prototypical small attacker that relies on quickness, guile and aggression rather than power and strength.

“That’s just my personality and the way I carry myself on the field,” he says. “Growing up I was a forward, a true, true forward. I played as a forward with the U-17 national team and was all attacking-minded. What I hear here and in Tijuana is that if you take guys on, it’s okay to make mistakes. If you take your guy on 10 times and lose it nine times, and you get that once chance and get through and create a goal or score a goal or get an assist, that’s all people remember. That makes it all worth it. To fail nine times but to get through that one time can really change a game, and that’s kind of the mentality Christian and I have. The same with [Lyndon] Gooch or anybody who plays out on the wing: we like to attack and get down the line.”
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