Player Spotlight: Paul Arriola already making noise in Liga MX

Arriola began his professional soccer career in July, and the 18-year-old American has wasted no time making an impact for Liga MX side Club Tijuana.
You could forgive Club Tijuana fans in the early months of the current Apertura season if they were left scratching their heads at the young blur of a player they had never heard of, running around the field for the Xolos and making big plays. His name, Paul Arriola, suggested that maybe he was a product of their academy, or just some new hot-shot Mexican kid ready to take Liga MX by storm.

Little did most Club Tijuana fans know that the impressive substitute with the wheels and fearlessness in the final third was an 18-year-old American just a few months removed from finishing high school. A teenager who had only turned pro weeks earlier, and who originally aspired to earn regular minutes on Club Tijuana’s Under-20 team this year.

Arriola has exceeded his own expectations for what his first season as a professional would be like. He has become a regular part of the Club Tijuana playing rotation after a torrid start to the season that saw him record assists in his first two matches to quickly become a fan favorite, as well as a favored option off the bench for Xolos head coach Jorge Almiron.

“It happened very quickly and, honestly, I didn’t expect it,” Arriola told Goal. “When I went down there my goal was just to establish myself on the U-20 team and to possibly get some looks in with the first team. I wasn’t selling myself short. It was just something I felt was the reality.

“Once it happened, I was able to play extremely well during preseason, which is something that really helped me establish my position where I am.”

It took Arriola three minutes into his pro career to show Club Tijuana just what they had. He picked off a loose ball, raced 30 yards downfield before delivering a perfectly weighted pass that Dario Benedetto converted for the third goal in an eventual 3-3 draw with Atlas.

Arriola needed even less time to make an impact in his next Xolos appearance. Just 30 seconds after entering Club Tijuana’s match against Morelia, Arriola put in a quick move to get free and deliver a perfect cross to set up a goal in an eventual 2-1 loss.

The instant impact results continued in Arriola’s third Liga MX appearance. On Aug. 17th, he scored his first professional goal just two minutes after entering Tijuana’s match vs. Monterrey. The 88th-minute equalizer was overshadowed by Humberto Suazo’s late winner, but Arriola had proven yet again that he could make the most of his opportunities.

He did it yet again in Club Tijuana’s next match, scoring an early goal in the Xolos’ 3-2 CONCACAF Champions League victory over CD Victoria on Aug. 20th.

Arriola has played in every match since for Club Tijuana, taking part in 10 of the Xolos’ 12 matches in all competitions, even moving ahead of U.S. national team midfielder Joe Corona in Club Tijuana’s depth chart.

“It’s been a great experience,” Arriola said of the eventful start to his pro career. “The nerves are always there, but I’ve learned just to use my explosiveness and speed as a sub. Especially when defenders are tired and not 100 percent. I’ve just learned to take them on and do the things that I do best.

“Even my first league game didn’t really feel like my first game,” Arriola said. “Our preseason game in San Diego felt more like my first pro game. It was a crazy atmosphere, and playing in my hometown made it even more special, and to be able to score in that game really gave me a lot of confidence heading into the season.”

Arriola first made waves in American soccer circles as a highly-rated youth player who had been a part of of the Los Angeles Galaxy youth academy. The reality of Arriola’s ties to the Galaxy is that he had only spent six months in the Galaxy academy set-up before going on a trial with Club Tijuana in December of 2012, and Arriola is a native of San Diego, much closer to Club Tijuana than the Galaxy.

The Galaxy did try to keep Arriola in the fold by inviting him to train with the first team in January of 2013, but after a few months, and a contract offer from the Galaxy, Arriola admitted to not feeling at home with the Galaxy. For him, Club Tijuana, a club based very near to his hometown of Chula Vista, and a team that played a style he admired, felt like the better fit.

“I liked (training with the Galaxy), it was a very good level, but I just didn’t feel it was the right place for me,” Arriola said. “I just didn’t feel like it was. I didn’t feel happy there, not the happiness that I feel here (with Club Tijuana).

“Money was definitely not the factor of me leaving the Galaxy, which is what a lot of people assume. It was mainly to be happy. I was told in LA that if I had signed with the first team I would not have been close to playing with the first team for the first year.

“Right then it was either sign a professional contract to play academy another year, or come down here and play with the U-20s and hopefully have a shot to play with the first team.”

Arriola’s decision looks like a stroke of genius now, as he finds himself playing more than even he could have imagined in his first season. In fact, Arriola is seeing more regular minutes in a foreign league than any other American teenager plying his trade abroad.

The key to Arriola’s success has been the aggressive approach he has taken, showing confidence with each appearance. He attributes his confident and aggressive approach to the way he was trained as an attacking player in California from an early age.

“When I was young I learned that as a forward it’s okay to make mistakes,” Arriola said. “My coach (Nomads Chula Vista head coach Eddie Fonbon) really helped me become the player that I am. He taught me that you can’t be scared to make a mistake going forward. You can’t be scared to lose the ball in the final third.

“You learn that, as a forward, you’re going to have good days and bad days. You can take on a guy 15 times, and maybe 14 times you don’t get through, but for that one time you get through and score you can be the hero.

“That’s my mentality. You can’t be scared to take people on and take a shot.”

That fearlessness has shone through in Arriola’s first pro season and his early success has already to questions about his national team future. A starter on the 2011 U.S. Under-17 World Cup team, Arriola has represented the USA on every level, and even though he could play for Mexico due to his family roots (and Mexican passport he obtained through his great grandfather’s Mexican nationality), Arriola is very much a U.S. player.

“The national team has always been one of my top priorities,” Arriola said. “There’s nothing like playing for your country. I’ve played for my country since I was 13 years old, and have been pretty much at every camp since them except for two when I was injured.

“I’m definitely an American player, a U.S. player and my mind has always been with the U.S. I don’t think that will change.”

For now, Arriola’s focus isn’t on his national team future, but rather on continuing to make the most of the playing time he is receiving with Club Tijuana. The goal now is to keep earning minutes and keep being an attacking threat, whether off the bench or as a starter.

One thing is clear at this point, though. Club Tijuana fans are no longer asking who Paul Arriola is.