USA's 'roadrunner' Arriola his own harshest critic at Gold Cup

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The 22-year-old midfielder may have gotten the nod for some key contests under Bruce Arena, but he's still far from satisfied by his performances

PHILADELPHIA — Paul Arriola's performances in the Gold Cup group stage left a lot to be desired. The U.S. national team midfielder wasn't finding touches on the ball. He didn't engage in enough one-on-one battles, either. And the end product? It just wasn't up to par.

That, at least, was his assessment.

"I think in the group stage I was very poor," Arriola told Goal. "Obviously the expectations for myself going into the Gold Cup were a lot higher, but look, sometimes things don't happen the way that they're supposed to or the way you plan them out."

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The 22-year-old winger logged 101 minutes in that group stage, starting against Martinique before coming off the bench versus Nicaragua. But even as the U.S. bolstered its attack with knockout round reinforcements Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, Arriola got the nod for Wednesday's quarterfinal against El Salvador at Lincoln Financial Field.

For a prospect with just nine caps to his name, Arriola already has become a player coach Bruce Arena trusts in key situations — from a World Cup qualifier against Mexico at Estadio Azteca to an elimination game in the Gold Cup.

Paul Arriola GFX

As the U.S. found itself locked in an ugly battle with El Salvador, Arriola's defensive tenacity and attacking vigor proved useful over a 66-minute shift on the right flank.

"Tonight I had a much better game," Arriola said after the 2-0 win. "I was able to connect with Jozy and kind of make runs inside out, get physical with some players, and fitness-wise I felt great. I was a little bummed to be taken out in the 66th minute — I definitely had more to give. But in the end that's Bruce's decision, and it's about the team."

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Arriola, at 5-foot-8, isn't the most physically imposing player, but the Club Tijuana man has the pace and guile to run at defenders. He also has a knack for tracking down loose balls, and isn't one to pull out of a tackle.

In short, he's the type of player who just makes life miserable for the opposition.

"He brings a lot of energy," U.S. right back Eric Lichaj said. "He likes taking people one on one and getting crosses in. ... He's like a little roadrunner. He's always running and creating stuff, and he's a big pest for opponents' defenses."

Paul Arriola USA El Salvador

Since taking over from Jurgen Klinsmann in November, Arena has largely preferred more technical wingers who also can play central midfield — such as Christian Pulisic, Alejandro Bedoya, Sebastian Lletget and Nagbe.

Arriola, on the other hand, fits the profile of a true winger. As Arena uses this Gold Cup to analyze fringe players who could contribute in this fall's World Cup qualifiers — and, potentially, the main event in Russia next summer — Arriola offers the U.S. a different dynamic.

"I'm very comfortable playing wide, getting touches out wide, taking guys on, trying to combine one-twos out wide," Arriola said. "On our team we have a lot of players that play in the middle, a lot of outside midfielders who like to tuck in, and sometimes we lack the width."

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Goalkeeper Tim Howard added: "Paul's a guy who comes underneath and when he gets the ball he's silky, he doesn't lose it a ton. He's a guy we have to get on the ball for us to help our football be more free flowing. A quiet kid, hard worker — exactly what we need."

It's a diligent mindset Arriola has aimed toward sharpening his final touch. After scoring in his first two caps last year, the Southern California native still finds himself looking for his third international goal.

Arriola understands fans' frustration with the attacker who pulls off every play until the one that matters — and he wields that self-awareness as an asset.

"I'm not going to lie — it's got to be a lot more effective in the final third from me," Arriola said. "It's great that I beat players and I have the speed to take guys on, and I have to finish the product. Today I had a couple balls to Jozy, a couple combination plays that if they had been taken care of it would have been a goal, and the same with my finishes.

"But I'm here to get better, and I'm grabbing everything that I can and listening to everyone. Eventually, I promise you guys, the end product will come."

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