Paul Arriola made it two goals in two appearances for the United States Men’s National Team on Tuesday night, his goal in the 71st minute finishing off a 4-0 rout of Trinidad & Tobago. The win assured the U.S. a trip to the hexagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying that is a little over two months away. Arriola’s goal assured Jurgen Klinsmann of yet another difficult subject in the squad selection process, as the manager now shifts his focus to a pair of upcoming friendlies and a massive qualifying encounter with Mexico on November 11th in Columbus, Ohio.
The U.S. were already in cruise control when Arriola entered Tuesday’s match, leading 3-0. In the 71st minute, just moments after coming on, the 21 year-old Chula Vista native and Club Tijuana winger found himself in a fortuitous position. Jozy Altidore (who led the American attack in Jacksonville, scoring twice in the second half to extend the lead to 3-0 after Sacha Kljestan had opened the scoring just before half-time) sent a pass from inside the eighteen yard box on the left attacking side to the feet of 17 year-old wonderkid Christian Pulisic, who was making his first start for the U.S. after scoring his first two goals on Friday in St. Vincent. Receiving the pass in stride about ten yards from goal with a chance to go for glory, Pulisic hit it first time, his shot parried by Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper Marvin Phillip. The rebound rolled away to the keeper’s left, right into the path of Arriola, who had stealthily crept in from his outside position, and from no more than eight yards out calmly placed it in to an open net for the American’s fourth of the evening.
Arriola jumped into the arms of Pulisic before embracing other teammates, continuously pumping his fists in pure jubilation.
After scoring on his debut against Puerto Rico in May, the nightcap against T&T in Jacksonville was another fine moment for Arriola in a national team kit. He shined brightly for the U.S. in Olympic qualifying last year, making his name well-known around the more deeply entrenched circles of U.S. fans. Scoring in a World Cup Qualifier has his name suddenly on the lips of fans, commentators, journalists, and most importantly Jurgen Klinsmann.
Arriola is a player who has been performing very well, albeit mostly as a substitute, for the Xolos of Club Tijuana. The Liga MX side is currently in first place, and is about to hit the toughest stretch of their regular season schedule, with ample road matches against top-tier opponents. How Arriola fares in those marquee Liga MX matchups could have great bearing on his potential selection for the next US camp, which will be fittingly centered around that hexagonal opener with Mexico. With two goals in two appearances for Klinsmann, one may be inclined to think that Arriola has already done enough to at least make the squad. But with so many players young and old vying for spots at all positions, nothing at this point is guaranteed for Arriola, who will arrive back in the pacific time zone on Wednesday, possibly with enough time to stop by his favorite ramen house in North Park, say hello to a few friends and family members in Chula Vista, and make his way down to Tijuana to rejoin his club. Depending on time details, he may be bound straight for TJ.
Xolos head to Estadio BBVA Bancomer on Saturday, the raucous and state of the art home of Monterrey, the side who were best in the league last season only to lose and improbable playoff final to Pachuca. (Xolos then head to Pachuca to take on Omar Gonzalez and Los Tuzos in their next match on September 17th. This is more than a tough run in the schedule. This is the gauntlet for Xolos, an extreme test of worth as many around Mexico, and southern California for that matter, question whether their hot start is anything more than a fluke.) Arriola and his club teammates will not return to Tijuana until September 21st when they host Queretaro at Estadio Caliente. Though it will likely be in a bench role for manager Miguel Herrera, look for Arriola to keep the ball rolling for Xolos and continue this strong run of form as he tries to help his team stay atop the league while doing battle with the upper echelon sides of the Mexican top flight.
The friendlies for the U.S. on October 7th and 11th are not exactly marquee matchups. They first travel to Cuba for a historic occasion at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana before returning stateside to the nation’s capital, taking on New Zealand at RFK Stadium. Fans and pundits alike have questioned the logic of these opponents being the final tests for the U.S. before the highly anticipated clash with Mexico to open up the hex. However, for a player like Arriola, the games against Cuba and New Zealand could prove crucial in earning even more respect from Klinsmann and his fellow coaches. If he were to score in either of those matches, a spot on the squad would seem an afterthought. A role off the bench against Mexico would become a legitimate part of the discussion.
What makes Arriola’s selection such a unique situation is that he does not start for club or country. If it were up to him, you could bet your mortgage he’d want to start and play ninety minutes. He’s a professional footballer. Yet he has truly embraced the super-sub role at Xolos, the fans always letting out a real roar when he is introduced on the stadium speakers. Barring injuries to a very deep midfield core, that role will continue to be his chance to impress both of his managers. In regards to the U.S. team, maybe it could be a real asset for Klinsmann against Mexico, to have a player who is comfortable coming off the bench and providing extra energy and does it routinely in the Mexican league.
The USA-Mexico match is 65 days away. The next 64 will decide whether or not Paul Arriola will play a role in that Friday night, Columbus drama on November 11th.