With the Xolos of Club Tijuana leading 3-1 away to Club Leon on Saturday night, the visiting players and coaches were beginning to sense the momentous occasion.
Xolos had never beaten Leon in top flight play at the Nou Camp, Leon’s home stadium that is better known as a house of horrors to Tijuana fans. The last win for Xolos in Leon came in a wild 2nd division playoff affair in November of 2011. Less than three months ago, Leon knocked Xolos out of the Liga MX playoffs.
Aside from the history and the ever-growing rivalry between the two teams, Xolos were on a mission to stay atop the league table here in 2017.
With 12 minutes of the 90 remaining, Chula Vista native and local fan favorite Paul Arriola was sent through on goal by Aviles Hurtado. Arriola got on the end of a lovely layoff from the Colombian, Hurtado having already given one of his finest performance in a Tijuana uniform.
Arriola took one touch before burying a low shot, far post to the bottom left corner, past the outstretched arms of another American international, Leon goalkeeper William Yarbrough.
The goal made the score 4-1, and sent the visiting Tijuana bench into a sweet kind of dreamland, manager Miguel Herrera’s relatively mild fist pumps combining with an uncharacteristic ear to ear grin to create an image of pure gaffer happiness.
Arriola celebrated the goal with class, kissing the special words printed above the club crest on his and all the Xolos tops, “Fuerza Yasser”, a dedication to injured Tijuana and Mexican National Team defender Yasser Corona, who suffered a frightening neck injury in Copa MX play earlier in the week.
The match ended with a final score of 4-2, Xolos exorcising the demons of the Nou Camp and staying in first place in the Liga MX Clausura table with their fourth win on the trot.
The fourth Xolos tally, which provided that extra bit of insurance in the 78th minute, came from a young man who is known for his menacing speed and deadly crossing ability, but is rapidly developing a scoring reputation.
He is a young man who takes ample pride in putting on a Tijuana kit, hailing from a town just fourteen miles north of the Xolos’ home ground of Estadio Caliente.
He is also a man in fine form, currently playing some of the best soccer of his young career.
This Sunday, Paul Arriola enjoyed his 22nd birthday, having scored a goal and helped his side to victory just hours prior. With the ups and downs he has experienced in recent years, it is sometimes hard to believe he is only 22.
2016 came to a strange close for Arriola, with goal scoring success for the United States National Team blending with a struggle to find the pitch for his club.
In 19 games in the last Apertura season, including the playoffs, Arriola made 16 appearances for Xolos. Not one of them was a start. He registered not a single goal or assist.
In his first two appearances for the U.S., Arriola scored on both occasions, the latter off the bench in his first World Cup Qualifier, a 4-0 win for the Yanks over Trinidad and Tobago in Jacksonville last September. (The first came in a May friendly in Puerto Rico, a 3-1 victory for the U.S.)
Though he has not seen the field since for the national team, he is certainly priming himself for a return to the World Cup Qualifying campaign come March with his performances in Liga MX.
In stark contrast to the 2016 Apertura, Arriola has started all five match for Xolos in the 2017 Clausura. He has played the full ninety minutes in all but one affair, the season opening loss away from home at Morelia, a night when just about the entire Tijuana team was singing off key.
He is playing with a high level of confidence that is visible from afar, and certainly palpable from up close for his teammates and members of the coaching staff.
He has slotted into a comfortable position this season, a right fullback spot that sees him fly up and down the wing and generate forward movement, a position that has helped him hold a starting job for Xolos before.
With the arrival of some quality attack-minded South American imports last campaign, Miguel Herrera’s tactics changed slightly. A switch to a four man backline for much of the season meant that Arriola was the odd man out. He was used solely as a super-sub, a late game energy boost with the ability to whip in a tantalizing cross. He still contributed, but he wanted more. He had to adapt. He had to improve.
“I learned last season,” Arriola said last month to Soccer Nation, “that it’s a lot easier to get a starting spot in this league than it is to keep one.”
“We all want to start games, but you have to earn that right, and continue to have that same attitude even when you are starting. No matter what, I need to work hard and improve every day.”
The numbers are mighty nice, two goals and two assists in five matches this season. The deeper meaning of those stats are even better.
The first goal was a game winner in the home opener. It was a blistering half-volley in the midst of a six goal blitz for Tijuana, the Xolos defeating Puebla 6-2 on a night of history and celebration at Estadio Caliente, the 10th anniversary of the club coinciding with the 200th match played at the stadium.
The goal was as a clean of a strike as you will see this season, Arriola himself saying it was as pure as any contact he’s ever made with his right boot.
Arriola’s second assist of the season was a vital moment in Xolos hot start to the Clausura.
It came in Guadalajara, eight nights after his stunning goal. The match against Chivas shared almost no similarities with the weekend prior, Xolos going from scoring six to registering just one shot on goal.
But they defended mightily throughout, and when that one chance was created in the 74th minute, Chivas were made to pay for their missed opportunities.
Milton Caraglio got on the end of a tantalizing cross to the back post from Arriola, who tumbled over the endline and onto his backside once the ball left his foot. Caraglio, known for his aerial prowess, thumped home the ensuing header. Xolos would hold onto the 1-0 lead and improbably take all three points back to Tijuana.
A 1-0 victory at home over Cruz Azul and the latest 4-2 win at Leon followed the miraculous night in Jalisco. Xolos are atop the Liga MX table with 12 points from five matches.
As impressive as any numbers for the hometown hero are the things that don’t show up on the average stat sheet. The lung-busting runs of Arriola have become a well known and highly admired spectacle inside Estadio Caliente, and Miguel Herrera has been adamant about his desire to see Arriola attack defenders with the ball at his feet whenever the opportunity presents itself.
“He stays on me all the time, in games and in practices,” Arriola said of Herrera. “He wants me to take guys on and use my speed. I know I have to be smart though, because I have to also get back defensively. But he wants me to really go at defenders. It’s how I can help create scoring chances for the team.”
The right fullback spot that Arriola currently occupies seems to suit him quite well, no matter how you prefer to label the formation. It has been called a 5-2-3, a 3-4-3, a 5-3-2, and more by journalists and commentators around Liga MX. Whatever it is, it is most definitely working for Herrera, and certainly for Arriola as well. The local lad looks to be playing with a freedom of expression, and the proper balance of attacking flare and defensive grit.
When asked how he maintains his unwavering energy level, Arriola responded with one word.
(He added that his steady diet of top-notch ramen from various Japanese restaurants in San Diego County plays a part in keeping him energized.)
After another fantastic performance on Saturday and the birthday on Sunday, a trip to Carson awaits Arriola on Tuesday, Xolos playing a friendly against the L.A. Galaxy, where Arriola called home from 2012-13 in his final days as a youth player. Tijuana then return to league action at Estadio Caliente on Friday night, squaring off with Necaxa in the sixth match of the season.
With Xolos riding a wave of momentum in Liga MX, Arriola must maintain his focus, as there surely has to already exist the thought of cracking Bruce Arena’s roster for the critical World Cup Qualifiers for the U.S. against Honduras and Panama in late March. Arena has mentioned Arriola’s name recently, the U.S. Manager saying he is “certainly on the radar”.
In the meantime, all Arriola can do is continue to perform at a high level for Club Tijuana, in turn bringing joy and satisfaction to one manager while grabbing the attention of another.