Two Fridays ago, Paul Arriola and the US men’s national team were on a high. Needing a victory against Panama to get closer to a World Cup berth, the US dominated for 90 minutes in Orlando, crushing the Panamanians 4-0. Arriola got the assist on the fourth goal, which came in the first start in a Hexagonal game for the USA by a D.C. United player since Santino Quaranta in 2005.
Needing just a point a couple of days later against Trinidad and Tobago — well, we know how the story goes. The US was scored upon twice in the first half, and Christian Pulisic’s goal in the second half wasn’t enough to save the Americans. That result, combined with wins by Panama and Honduras, knocked the US out of the World Cup, the first time they had missed the tournament since 1986.
In that game against T&T, Arriola started once again, but was removed at halftime, in favor of Clint Dempsey. Arriola had a largely ineffective half, attempting just four passes in 45 minutes. But a week and a half after the shocking result, Arriola took time to publicly talk about what happened with Black and Red United, amidst all the hoopla surrounding United’s last game at RFK Stadium.
“I still haven’t let it go. And I don’t think I ever will. No one wants to be that team that doesn’t qualify for the World Cup,” Arriola told B&RU after practice on Thursday.
Simply put, the result could end up being a jolt to the system. USMNT Head Coach Bruce Arena resigned shortly after the loss, though he was likely only going to last until the World Cup had the US earned a berth anyway. There’ll be inquests into what went wrong, changes will be proffered. But for Arriola, MLS is itself, which has been pointed to as a potential reason as to why the US didn’t qualify, isn’t an issue.
As Arriola pointed out, plenty of MLS players for other countries made contributions to teams that are going to the World Cup next summer. Rommell Quioto was the fourth leading scorer throughout all the stages of qualifying, and he’ll get a chance to play in Russia if Honduras can get back Australia next month. And Quioto, who plays for the Houston Dynamo, scored the game winning goal for Honduras against Mexico. Meanwhile, Seattle Sounders centerback Roman Torres scored the crucial goal for Panama in their win over Costa Rica on the last day - the goal which essentially knocked the US out.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the other teams in CONCACAF,” said Arriola. “A lot of them have grown. And a lot of players play in MLS. And MLS players are the ones scoring goals throughout CONCACAF. I don’t think the league is a problem.”
“I think people are overreacting, saying [the US missing the World Cup] is because of the league, and that the league needs to get better. That’s not the case at all. In the end, we had a horrible game in tough conditions, and maybe we went in overconfident, thinking we only had to get one point.”
For Arriola, there will be other opportunities to go to a World Cup. He will still only be 27 years old by the time the 2022 World Cup in Qatar rolls around. An age where he will likely be in his prime. However, nothing is for certain, and an injury then, or even the US missing out again, could cost Arriola a chance on the world’s biggest stage.
Which makes missing out this year tougher to stomach, given that he had become an important cog within Arena’s set up, as evident by his starts during the Hexagonal.
“It hurts. Especially a young kid like me, who has dreamed about going to a World Cup,” Arriola said in his chat with B&RU. “That’s a dream for me, and every kid in America, that plays soccer, to represent their country at a World Cup. And to know we were 90 minutes away, or one goal away, it’s rough.”
At halftime against Trinidad and Tobago, down two goals, the US had to do something to try to change their fortune. Even with the two goal deficit, they were still on course to qualify directly for the World Cup, given that both Panama and Honduras were losing as well. Though any number of players could have been taken off at the half, it was Arriola who was replaced, with Dempsey, and all his wealth of experience, coming in to try to spark some life into the US side.
It’s never an easy decision to come to terms with, being taken out of a game at halftime. But Arriola knows that was more of a reflection of the situation that the US was in, rather than his performance on the field, even if it wasn’t up to his usual standard.
“Before the game, I don’t think any of us weren’t pumped up for the what we were going to experience,” said Arriola. “I can tell you, I left everything on the field. And that’s a great feeling on the inside.”
“I had a horrible first half, and a lot of my teammates didn’t have a great first half either. And in the end, [Bruce Arena] had to take someone off to get Clint [Dempsey] on, and it was me,” he added. “That’s not something that frustrates me.”
Now, Arriola will have some free time to help get past the Trinidad and Tobago loss. D.C. United’s season is about to wrap up, as Arriola’s arrival during the summer couldn’t help jump start United’s poor season. Given his future with the national team though, Arriola seems to a candidate for the US side that will travel to Portugal next month.
And at some point in the coming years, Arriola might be able to forgot the pain of a missing out of a World Cup. But just not quite yet.
“It just frustrates me that we weren’t able to get the job done,” said the winger, “and we let down so many people.”