Washington, DC has always been a home of sorts to US Soccer, with RFK Stadium remaining a revered venue for both the women’s and men’s national teams years after being regarded as obsolete. The USMNT has played more games at RFK than anywhere else on the planet, but since their last visit (2016’s 1-1 draw with New Zealand), top-level soccer has moved to new digs. D.C. United’s new home at Audi Field hosts its first United States match ever tonight, and for Black-and-Red winger Paul Arriola, that’s a big deal.
“It’s gonna be exciting,” said Arriola following training at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis yesterday. “I think the fans will also enjoy it, more importantly, the first game for the national team to be at Audi [Field]. For me to be a part of it...it’s a real honor.”
It’s not lost on Arriola that he’s representing both club and country on Buzzard Point tonight. With national team head coach Gregg Berhalter citing some specific system needs, Arriola is the lone United player to get called in. “It’ll be a special moment for me, being the only D.C. United player being there for the first time with the national team,” noted the 24 year old.
From a positional standpoint, Arriola may have an additional reason to be excited. With United, injuries and absences have forced him to play as a fullback, wingback, or central midfielder numerous times this year. With the national team naturally being able to build more depth — there are no financial concerns, roster regulations, or transfer windows to cope with, after all — Gregg Berhalter has Arriola in his squad to be a winger, full stop.
“It makes my life a little bit easier knowing that I’m gonna be playing — whether it’s on the left or on the right — as a winger,” said Arriola. While he has never complained about having to play various roles for D.C. this year, there is some relief at being able to play the role he knows he’s best at. “I’m definitely excited about that, definitely excited about being in the attack more.”
2019 has been a demanding year for Arriola and for United, who along with the Montreal Impact have played more games (17) than anyone else in MLS. The Black-and-Red are coming off of a particularly bruising portion of their schedule: 6 league matches and a friendly in a 20-day span between May 12 and June 1.
Despite the grueling slate, Arriola says he’s feeling pretty good.
“It’s not as much physical now. My suspension a couple of weeks ago kind of allowed me to de-load on my body, so physically good. Mentally, maybe a little more drained than physically,” said Arriola. However, he was quick to point out that being busy is better than having nothing to do. “You’re not gonna get a rest if you’re doing things right, so I see it as a good thing that I’m here and have the opportunity to keep playing through the break.”
Asked to think about what the schedule has meant to his club side, Arriola was unsure whether United’s front-loaded schedule was better than last year’s, which thanks to the construction timeline at Audi Field meant playing an intense late-season schedule packed with mid-week games. “ Last year with D.C., it was one of those things [where] it was always gonna be tough. When we looked at halfway through the year, we said ‘OK, we have our home stadium, and every game is a must-win.’ At least now, we’re in a lot better position than we were last year, and we have a better understanding of how to go about it and what we need to do.”
Arriola also admitted that the standings may be what determines his thinking on the subject of whether being busier than the rest of the league early or late is the preferable option. “I think I’d be saying it was better to have a front-loaded schedule if we were in first place in the East by a few points, but the reality is that we’re not,” noted Arriola, as United fell out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference after tying San Jose on Saturday and seeing the Philadelphia Union defeat Minnesota 3-2 a day later.
While Arriola’s focus has temporarily shifted from United to the United States, he can’t help but indicate that bringing the latter over to the former’s house as a guest is a big moment for him. “It’ll be a special moment for me, whether I’m on the field or not, to experience and show everyone else what Audi Field is like. I play there every other week, and I know how crazy and great the atmosphere is.”