Between scoring a World Cup Qualifying goal for the United States and battling for playing time with Club Tijuana, it’s been a wild last few weeks for Chula Vista native Paul Arriola. Our own Nate Abaurrea caught up with Arriola for an extended interview after Xolos 2-1 Liga MX victory over Queretaro on Wednesday night at Estadio Caliente. Though Arriola played only six minutes in the match after entering as a late substitute, he was upbeat and had lots to say. Here’s part one of the full conversation, with topics ranging from his latest stint with the U.S. Men’s National Team to the role of ‘super-sub’ in Mexico.
Abaurrea: “First off, what was it like being home tonight? Xolos haven’t played here at Caliente since August.”
Arriola: “Yeah, it was great. I love being home. I was away for those ten days with the national team, then back in Tijuana for a day, then gone with Xolos for another ten days. We had three road games in seven days! Plus the national team stuff, it was five games in twenty days. It’s really good to be back here for a while. Obviously, I’d like to play a little more than I did tonight, but the most important thing right now is that the team keeps rolling with the momentum we have. We need to stay up top.”
Abaurrea: “Let’s talk a little more about the last few weeks for you, personally. From St. Vincent & the Grenadines, to the game against Trinidad & Tobago in Jacksonville, to your goal, to being back with Xolos… How would you sum up the last few weeks of your soccer life?”
Arriola: “It’s definitely been a trip. Anytime you can travel with the national team, it’s an immense honor and privilege. I just went in trying to prove myself and to have a good time, and I learned so much from being there. It’s amazing playing with those guys. I learned so much from Jozy Altidore, from Sacha Kljestan, Fabian Johnson… I could name off every single player that’s there. They all helped me grow during the camp and gave me a lot of confidence. And that confidence is the main thing. Jurgen’s an awesome coach. Whatever people want to say about him, they should now that man to man, he’s an awesome coach, and I think all the players would agree. The way he works in camp is amazing. I was rewarded with a cap, and I think originally I wasn’t supposed to play. Some folks had been saying that some of the younger guys were just there to get the experience. We had two tough games that we absolutely had to win. But like I said, I thought I had a great week of camp, and I was rewarded. In the end I was even able to reward myself, and put myself in a good position for the future.
Coming home was tough. The first game against Monterrey, with all the travel, it was a little hard on my legs. And we were in a tough environment. It’s such a difficult place to play, that stadium. I didn’t think I played all too well, but the team managed to get a valuable point. And then against Toluca in the Copa MX, I received an early knock that kind of took me out of things, and I didn’t recover quick enough. And then going to Pachuca this last weekend, and this match against Queretaro, I was able to play a few minutes in each. It’s just part of the quest. I’ve got to work even harder to get back into a good rhythm and continue to help this team. You can’t argue with where we’re at right now.”
Abaurrea: “Taking a step back to Jacksonville, Florida… In a camp where, as you said, you didn’t know if you were even gonna see the field, and you not only end up on the field, but you end up scoring a goal in a World Cup qualifier. Can you take us through that moment?”
Arriola: “Yeah. It was incredible. The day before the Trinidad game, I thought I had a particularly good practice. Tab Ramos came up to me afterwards, ’cause Tab knows me real well from the U-20’s. Tab said look, you’ve had a wonderful camp, everyone knows it, some people are talking about it, and we’re gonna try to get you into the game, as long as everything goes well for the team. So I had a clue going into the game that I was gonna get my chance. I was ready.
They sent me to warm up in the second half. It was 1-0 at the time, then 2-0, then 3-0, and I’m just thinking, hey, the more goals we score the better for me. There’s no pressure at that point. You just go out and enjoy yourself and that’s what I did. And obviously if you’re able to put yourself in the right position at the right time the way that I was able to, you can get those kinds of goals. I was so excited, so glad, so filled with emotion. Anytime you play for the national team, it’s such an honor, and to come on and get a goal in a World Cup qualifier, it’s an even greater honor to do that for my country.
Abaurrea: “I have to ask you about the role of ‘super-sub’. It’s a role you’ve assumed this season here with Piojo (Miguel Herrera) and he speaks so highly of what you do coming off the bench for Xolos and changing the pace of a game late on. I know you embrace the role a bit, but at the same time, you’re a professional soccer player. You want to play full 90’s. How do you balance that as a young player?”
Arriola: “It’s definitely a tough situation for me, but a good situation as well. As a young player, you have to understand and try to get a real grasp on the type of role that you’re gonna play. My first five semester seasons here with Xolos, I essentially was a ‘super-sub’. I would come into games late, and was told to try to make a difference with my quickness and of course getting crosses in and creating chances to score. Then last season, I became a starter for some time. I looked at myself as a starter. But I learned that in this league, at this level of soccer, you need to always be improving.
We have some great players on this team, and a lot of guys who have come in recently. Aviles (Hurtado), Milton (Caraglio), and a few others attacking wise. And after switching from a back-line of five, where I played a lot as a right-wing-back, there’s no such position in our lineup anymore. So I’ve had to change my game up a bit, and get back into that ‘super-sub’, attacking role off the bench. As I grow, I’m gonna continue to ask more, not only of myself but of the situations that I’m in. I know that if I want to continue to be called up by Jurgen, I have to play. And my contract is here with Xolos. I have to search for that here. I have to play.”