Strong Clausura start sees Arriola forcing his way back into USMNT picture

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing has changed except the numbers, but those numbers may give Arriola the attention he needs for a March recall.

Tijuana winger Paul Arriola doesn’t feel he’s any different a player than he was last season or the season before that.

“Nothing has changed other than the one thing that lacked,” he told FourFourTwo this week. “The stats.”

As long as I keep going the way I’m going right now in Mexico, I will be worthy of a call-up in March.

- Paul Arriola

Arriola has enjoyed a blazing start to Liga MX’s Clausura tournament with Xolos, scoring two goals and adding two assists in his last four games. Arriola said he believes the service and opportunities have always been there, it’s just those moments have lacked the final piece. Crosses find their target but aren’t finished. Good looks at net just can’t beat the keeper.

Goals and assists most often serve as the measure of success, though, and Arriola’s recent run of form has pulled the winger to the forefront of conversations about the U.S. men’s national team and the roster for vital March World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama. If his form continues, Arriola should be a no-brainer pick for Arena.

It’s validation for Arriola, who said he always believed he was capable of producing consistently if given the opportunity.

“People say, ‘What have you done differently’ or ‘How come it’s working now,’ and honestly I’m not quite sure I have the answer to why it’s working, but the end product is there for me now,” Arriola said. “It’s something that’s given me a lot of confidence, not just the way I’m playing, but the end product … It’s really opened me up and allowed me to be the player I am but with a lot more sense of calmness.”

This run almost didn’t happen – at least, not with Tijuana.

After the end of the last tournament, Arriola was prepared to leave Xolos for a team that would give him more consistent playing time. The 22-year-old made 12 appearances in the first half of the 2016-17 campaign, but none of those were starts. He never logged more than 24 minutes.

It was frustrating for Arriola, who felt he was ready to contribute in a bigger way for the team, which finished atop the table. The winger had been called up by Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team, and he felt that was an endorsement, of sorts.

“You get this feeling where, if I’m playing with the best people in the country, then why can’t I get a starting spot on my club team,” Arriola said. “I was very frustrated with my situation and very vocal that if I’m not playing then I think this isn’t the right place for me and I need to find another club.”

Arriola was coming up on the final year of his contract. He asked to be loaned or sold in search of more minutes. Instead, Tijuana promised him the one thing he wanted: an opportunity to win a starting job.

Arriola had a shaky performance as a wingback in the opening game of the Clausura and was pulled at halftime. Xolos coach Miguel Herrera stuck with him in the lineup the next game. That faith paid off for Herrera, and for Arriola. It was the start of the current four-game run in which Arriola has been a difference-maker for Tijuana, which is back atop the table.

Arriola has toggled between right wing back and right wing over the past five games, but he’s grown comfortable in either spot in the system. He has also played right central midfield in a 4-3-3. It’s the type of versatility that could make him an asset for Arena’s national team. Arriola said former U.S. assistant Berti Vogts told him he had the ideal skillset for playing right back, but for now Arriola sees himself as a winger.

The San Diego-native has a relationship with Arena and his staff. Arriola chose Tijuana over the LA Galaxy back in 2013, and was also recruited to UCLA by Kenny Arena, Bruce Arena’s son and assistant coach. He said he only briefly said hello to Arena since the coaching change and was told, “We’ll be in touch.”

Arriola has some competition on the wings. The U.S. pool is flooded with talent in that position, including Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. With his current form, however, Arriola has pushed himself very much into the picture.

“Hopefully, as long as I keep going the way I’m going right now in Mexico, I will be worthy of a call-up in March,” Arriola said. “And once I’m in camp in March, that will determine if I get on the field in qualifiers. For me the most important thing is not to get too overwhelmed about what could happen and focus day-in and day-out on the next game. If everything goes well, hopefully I’ll be there in March, but right now I’m not thinking too much about the World Cup qualifiers.”

Like with Tijuana earlier this year, Arriola can only hope the U.S. gives him an opportunity.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.