In a year marked by upheaval and uncertainty, count Paul Arriola ecstatic to end 2020 in the same place he started it - in training camp with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Just two weeks after he helped lead the USMNT to victory in its February friendly against Costa Rica, Arriola tore his ACL in a preseason match with D.C. United. Coming off a high-flying 2019, the 25-year-old winger faced a massive setback. He steeled himself to the prospect of an injury that looked to keep him from an entire Major League Soccer campaign and the start of World Cup qualifying.
Resolved and resolute, Arriola got back to work. After a successful surgery and a grueling 10-month-long rehabilitation process, he finally took the field for D.C. United again on November 8, the last day of the MLS regular season. With delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Arriola didn’t miss any major action with the USMNT. Now, he’s returned to the red, white, and blue eager to prove he’s back at full strength.
“I'm confident I will continually get better,” Arriola told reporters from Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday. “Being able to come back for that last game with D.C. was to try and make the playoffs, but secondly it was for self-confidence to know that I played an official match and I can go into a National Team camp and feel confident and feel normal, be treated normal and not really have any type of limitation. I'm looking forward to kind of continuing that, and also extremely grateful to be here.
“You get a different perspective and mentality when you're out for so long due to an injury. To be able to come back and put on the crest, to just be able to train and have a good time, it's special.”
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Arriola rehabbed for almost all of 2020 in D.C., but the road to recovery runs a lonely course: countless hours of solo work in the gym and a gradual return to run and play soccer again. While he made an emotional return to the Audi Field pitch at the end of the season, this month’s USMNT training camp marks his return to regular full-team activities. When the potential for a December friendly became an opportunity, it turned into an important goal for Arriola.
“Prior to this camp, I matched my highest speed from pre-surgery, which was a big sign fitness-wise,” Arriola said. “Having constant communication with the staff throughout the year and getting updates from them, knowing that there could possibly be a December camp, that was an external factor to make sure that I'm able to be back.
“There's only so much that you can do until you get into a real training environment. Not that I was not in a real training environment in D.C., but the way that the past couple of months in-season there was game after game, so I was doing a lot of individual training. There's nothing really that compares to this.”
Even at just 25 years old, Arriola still stands as the most experienced player called to the USMNT’s December camp with 33 caps and five goals. He’s the fourth-oldest on a very youthful roster of almost all MLS players.
“Paul has been a fixture in this team since we took over,” said USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter earlier this week. “It was unfortunate that he had this injury, and with this injury we were thinking he was going to miss the first six games of World Cup qualifying. Now with everything that's happened in the world, it's fortunate that he didn't. Now we want to get him back into the fold as soon as possible.”
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The forward’s call-up doesn’t just put a cap on an impressive comeback trail during the course of 2020, it also gives him an opportunity to participate in one of the most exciting moments for American soccer of recent memory. As more and more U.S. players make their mark overseas- a record seven USMNT players took the field during this week’s UEFA Champions League action their exploits have not gone unnoticed by the team’s domestic-based contingent. It excites them and drives them forward.
“The players that are playing in Europe, that's an amazing step, not just for them, but for the country and for U.S. Soccer. At the same time, for guys in MLS, I think it motivates us to continue to play better,” Arriola said. “When we come into camp, to make it count, that's the most important thing. It's showing the coaching staff, showing the teammates and showing the country that you deserve to be here and you're able to represent everyone at the highest level.”
The rising tide of young U.S. talent around the world also ratchets up the intensity every time the Men’s National Team comes together. With a camp full of bright prospects, players stand eager to impress the USMNT coaching staff and make their case to cement themselves in the team’s future.
After a long and winding 10-month road back to represent the USA, Arriola wants to show that he’s as strong as he showed in February. He’ll have a chance to prove himself on the field December 9 against regional rival El Salvador.
“My end goal is obviously to be fit to be ready to have an impact against El Salvador, however that may be, then leading into January, and after that continue to get better and continue to feel like myself pre-surgery,” Arriola said.
“Everyone has a chance to step up and make a difference on the team. No matter the age, no matter the caps, no matter how many years that they've played. It's exciting to see all the young talent that's coming up in Europe, in MLS, in this camp. I think we have amazing players and I think the country should be excited for what's to come for the National Team.”