The USA's 6-0 men's friendly win over El Salvador will be remembered for the first caps for five players.
At the age of 24, Chris Mueller celebrated his first international match of any kind with two goals and two assists. Ayo Akinola also scored a goal, and Julian Araujo added an assist. In the second half, outside backs Kyle Duncan and Marco Farfan came off the bench to make their national team debuts.
But Wednesday's game probably meant the most to Paul Arriola, the USA's most experienced player with 34 caps. It marked his first start in a competitive match in more than 10 months after suffering a knee injury in preseason with D.C. United.
Arriola did not return until a 21-minute appearance for D.C. United in its final MLS game a month ago, and U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter brought him into the Fort Lauderdale camp not knowing if he'd even be ready to play.
All Arriola did was set the USA on its way with the game's opening goal in the 17th minute, the first of five goals in a 10-minute span against the outclassed Selecta.
“It almost brought me to tears after the game when we handed him the man of the match, because imagine what he’s gone through this year,” Berhalter said. “You imagine that in January he played his last game for us. He’s played one game since then, and he comes back and performs at this level in December. I’m really impressed with it. It shows what type of character Paul has. It shows the work he’s put in.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had its pluses and minuses for Arriola. As Berhalter pointed out earlier in camp, the national team assumed Arriola would be out for the first six games of World Cup 2022 qualifying. But Concacaf scrapped its original format and pushed back the start of the revised qualifying competition until September 2022, so Arriola hasn't missed any qualifiers
But the revised MLS calendar meant that teams were often playing twice a week to get in as many games as possible, which limited training.
“There's only so much that you can do until you get into a real training environment," he said. "Not that I was not in a real training environment in D.C., but the way that the past couple of months in-season there was game after game, so I was doing a lot of individual training. There's nothing really that compares to this.”
Even more important than playing a Concacaf opponent gathering for the first time since January was the work that the U.S. players put in camp during their week at the new Inter Miami facility.
“When we come into camp, to make it count, that's the most important thing," Arriola said. "It's showing the coaching staff, showing the teammates and showing the country that you deserve to be here and you're able to represent everyone at the highest level."
Most of the players in camp are at the beginning of their pro careers and looking to make a name for themselves. Arriola is only 25, but he has already played eight pro seasons, joining Mexico's Tijuana out of high school in Chula Vista, across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Arriola first played for the USA at the 2011 U-17 World Cup. Most of his teammates from the 2011 team are already out of soccer, but he went on to start for the USA when it won the 2017 Gold Cup.
Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta, a sub against El Salvador, and Arriola are the only players who played for the USA in 2020 and were on the field three years ago when the USA lost to Trinidad & Tobago, 2-1, in Couva to be eliminated from the 2018 World Cup. Arriola is just thrilled to be a part of a program with so many young players coming into their own.
“Everyone has a chance to step up and make a difference on the team," he said. "No matter the age, no matter the caps, no matter how many years that they've played. It's exciting to see all the young talent that's coming up in Europe, in MLS, in this camp. I think we have amazing players and I think the country should be excited for what's to come for the national team."