Paul Arriola had a text message from his D.C. United boss Ben Olsen after a strong performance last month for the US men’s national team against Costa Rica. Olsen congratulated the winger after 90 minute effort, which ended with Arriola securing the 2-0 win with a late goal, his third for the senior national team. In Gregg Berhalter’s lineup that day, Arriola had featured most of the game on the left flank, making a nuisance of himself every time he got the ball in the attacking end.
For United, Arriola is strictly a right sided player. In his retelling of the story to B&RU on Thursday, Arriola said he jokingly responded to Olsen by saying, “did you see me playing on the left?”
Olsen’s response? “Don’t even think about it.”
Arriola came back to United after that strong showing with the national team and has kept up his form, earning another call up for the international break next week. The US has games against Chile and Ecuador, as they gear up for this summer’s Gold Cup. Berhalter called in only MLS players during the first camp, but expanded his pool for this window, which is a recognized FIFA window.
In the first game of the year for D.C., Arriola had a standout performance against Atlanta United, and scored the winner in a 2-0 victory. Against Real Salt Lake tomorrow, Arriola and his teammates have a chance to grab seven points from their first three games, a start that mirrors the finish they had in 2018.
“It’s an honor. I felt it was deserved,” Arriola told B&RU about his most recent call up. “I feel confident in playing in the type of system with the national team, and continuing my form here with D.C. It’s great to be called back.”
Last year, when Dave Sarachan was the interim manager for the US after the World Cup qualifying disaster, Arriola was called into the January camp. However, when he returned to his club, Arriola said that it took him some time to find his footing with Olsen’s team.
It wasn’t until the game against the Columbus Crew in Annapolis, that Arriola finally felt back to his usual self. He got sent off that game, but returned two games later against RSL, scored, and never looked back.
“I did January camp last year as well, and I got off to a slow start,” Arriola said of his experience last year. “It was my first real MLS offseason, my first January camp. And I wasn’t sure how to go about it.”
Before camp this year, he knew how to go about it, and that meant taking a week off after the playoff loss to Columbus, before getting back into the gym to get to work for the upcoming camp and season.
“I told myself that I would not let myself get to that point this year. I needed to be ahead of the curve, and continue my form,” said Arriola. “I made it a point to go into January camp fit, making sure I was confident.”
“I give myself a lot of credit for the way I approached the offseason.”
In the first game during the winter camp, Arriola came on as a substitute in the win over Panama, when the game had already been decided. Arriola slide into his usual right midfield role, but was then asked by Berhalter if he could play on the left against Costa Rica. Arriola said of course, and the former Club Tijuana man earned his 19th cap starting on the left flank.
Arriola especially shined early in the second half against the Ticos, when he created three opportunities for teammates to finish off a chance for a goal. None of them came to fruition, but it was clear that Arriola was who Costa Rica needed to worry about. Jonathan Lewis then came in, and Arriola shifted to the right hand side. Lewis immediately picked up an assist, but Arriola got his crowning achievement when he raced onto a pass into the box late in the game, and chipped home his third international goal.
“On the left, I felt comfortable because I had two options that I was confident in,” said Arriola. “I could come inside and combine, moving towards the center attacker. Or I could take my guy and go down the line, which I always feel comfortable with.”
While United’s attacking three midfielders, Arriola, Luciano Acosta, and Lucas Rodriguez, have the freedom to float around the midfield during a game, it’s still Arriola’s main job to stick to the right hand flank. He provides the vertical game for United, with Rodriguez given more liberty to cut inside to combine with Acosta and Wayne Rooney.
He’s not sure where Berhalter will ask him to play, but says either way, he’s comfortable in the new national team system. And now with the European players in the mix, the goal for this upcoming game is to get them integrated, and everyone clicking ahead of June’s Gold Cup.
“We all have a good understanding of what we need to do and our specific roles,” said Arriola. “Now, can everyone catch up and be on the same page to be successful? As long as we are on the same page, we can be successful together.”