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In Paul Arriola, D.C. United have their new star man

The USMNT midfielder told the press Thursday that he looks forward to the challenge of dragging United up the table

Back in July, Paul Arriola was with the United States men’s national team, making waves as the team won the Gold Cup. The winger, who current USMNT manager Bruce Arena had told years before would only have a bit part to play if he signed with the LA Galaxy in 2013, played his part as the US eventually wound up as CONCACAF’s champions. At the same time, D.C. United were mired in a six game losing streak, cemented to the bottom of MLS standings.

A marriage between the two seemed unlikely then, but there Arriola was on Thursday, training in front of fans and media at an open practice session wearing the Black-and-Red. The move was quite stunning. United sent more than double their previous record for a transfer fee to Club Tijuana to secure Arriola, and sent oodles of allocation money to the Galaxy to get the 22 year old’s rights within MLS. The move must be taken as a signal that United are changing how they will approach transfers as the team looks to move to Audi Field next year.

For Arriola, making the move from Xolos and Liga MX to the Black-and-Red in MLS was all about a transition that was going to make him happy.

“You have to do what makes you happy. Soccer players, we’re all humans,” Arriola told media on Thursday, during his introductory press conference. “The only thing you can ask for as a human is to search for happiness. I think, in the end, this was a spot that I felt comfortable with, and coming here made me happy. I think that was a great decision. Playing wise, I’m looking to grow.”

The previous record for United’s biggest transfer was set last winter, when United decided to make Luciano Acosta loan from Boca Juniors a permanent transfer. That set the club back about $1.4 million, according to various reports. For Arriola, the cost was somewhere between $3 million and $3.5 million. Add on to that the $500,000 in a combination of allocation money to the Galaxy spread across 2018 and 2019, and the $1 million that United is said to be giving Arriola as a yearly salary, and the outlay for this move is an eye-opener.

That’s not lost on Arriola, who sees it as a vote of confidence for what he can bring to the club in the years to come.

“A club willing to spend a lot of money on me shows the confidence they have me,” said Arriola. “Now I have to show I have the confidence in them, and myself, to help the team win championships.”

The decision to make this big of a splash in the transfer window wasn’t one that United took lightly. But after a conversation with owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien back in June, General Manager Dave Kasper knew he had the backing to make the kind of move that would help change United’s outlook on and off the field.

And in signing Arriola, he got a player who isn’t the finished product, unlike many of the big-money transfers MLS has seen over the years. At 22 years old, Arriola is much closer to the beginning of his career rather than the end. A move like this isn’t unprecedented in MLS, but along with Acosta, it’s certainly a new direction for the Black-and-Red.

“This is a strategic investment. Paul was the type of investment that the club wanted to make strategically,” said Kasper in the press conference. “Thankfully we got it over the line. We’ve added talent, we’ve filled positional needs, and we’re excited. Not only about Audi Field, but this year. This season is not over.”

And lucky for United, their goals matched up with Arriola’s. After spurning the Galaxy after a few months in their academy system, Arriola headed south to play with Tijuana in Liga MX in 2013. He quickly found himself earning minutes, which in turn meant a prominent role with the US youth national teams, appearing in four games in the U-20 World Cup in 2015. That turned into senior caps in 2016, including a goal in his debut against Puerto Rico in May.

This summer, Arriola started for the US in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Mexico, in which the US came away with a point in a 1-1 draw. Arriola maintained Arena’s trust this summer during the Gold Cup, starting all three knockout round games as the US eventually triumphed 2-1 over Jamaica in the final.

So it would have made sense for most for Arriola to stay with Xolos. Instead, after already appearing for the club following Gold Cup duty, he decided to listen when United came calling. And after hearing the sales pitch, he determined that United’s aspirations lined up nicely with his goals as a player.

“I had to look at all of my goals. My short term, my medium term, and my long term, and when I looked at that, the plan that D.C. had for me, talking with Dave specifically, was what I was looking for,” said Arriola. “That made it easy. I’m American, and the interest to play in MLS has always been there. Four years ago, it wasn’t the right time for me, and I opted to go another way. But I knew one day, I wanted to come back. D.C., everything that is going on with the club, it’s going great. People say it’s been a rough season, but in the past years they’ve been in the playoffs.”

His new head coach Ben Olsen sees a player that is willing to buy into a team-first mentality. It’s been the crux of United’s successes during Olsen’s reign as manager, and something that he looks for in a player to help out the club.

“They’re selfless, they are team guys,” Olsen said of Arriola and his fellow newcomers at today’s press conference. “If you do that, you’ll be accepted right away. Players will play with good players. You add the right mentality, the right skill set, it will make my job a bit easier.”

It helps that Arriola see himself the same way as well.

“Anyone who knows me, has known that any team I play for, it’s all about the team,” said the winger. “That’s just the type of guy I am. I’m here to help the team, and Ben is my coach, and the decisions he makes, those are the ones you have to trust.”

For all that United went through though to get Arriola from Tijuana, there was still one last hurdle. Arriola had spent a couple of months with the LA Galaxy academy, and they offered him a homegrown contract in 2013. MLS rules dictated that the Galaxy held his rights within the league until the end of time. Given his rise with the national team, that meant the Galaxy could raise the price up.

And they did just that, but United had no problem coping with the extra cost. $500,000 in allocation money is nothing to blink an eye at, but for Kasper it was worth every penny.

“The days of floating a second round pick, or $100,000 or $150,000 in allocation money, those days are gone, especially when you’re going after a prized asset like Paul,” the GM said said about this aspect of the move. “We were determined to get this deal done. We wanted Paul at this club. We certainly know what the market value of the assets are in this league. You just pay, and move on. We were happy to pay, because we knew we were getting Paul.”

The hope for this weekend is that Arriola is available to play against Real Salt Lake. Being an American, he doesn’t need to wait on a visa, just the International Transfer Certificate to be processed. As of Thursday that wasn’t done, though Kasper alluded to at least two of the four recent signings being eligible to take the field against RSL. Having already started his season with Xolos - Arriola went the full 90 over the weekend - there won’t be any need to build his fitness up.

Despite the slim chances of making the playoffs in 2017, Arriola is already primed to make impressions on the field.

“I’m confident we are going to make the playoffs for years to come,” Arriola said. “I’m asking to get on the field as quickly as I can, and help the team.”