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What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: Paul Arriola

ST PAUL, MN - AUGUST 09: Paul Arriola attends a mix zone during a training session ahead of the MLS All Stars and Liga MX All Stars game at National Sports Center on August 9, 2022 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Omar Vega/Getty Images

Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?

As this series has detailed for one year, the USMNT is stocked with cool young players who can do stuff on the ball, use their brains, and play recognizably modern soccer at an extremely high level. That’s great and unprecedented at this scale, and all fans should love that. But, as this series also noted last week, success at the international level is often determined by something cruder: Do you have a sufficient amount of Little Fuckers? Do you have guys who revel in annoying their opponents? The USMNT has several, including several of those cool young guys referenced in the first sentence, and none of them are as accomplished in this area as Paul Arriola.

Who Does He Play For?

Paul Arriola plays for USMNT feeder squad FC Dallas alongside several of his international teammates and several players who will contend for spots at the next World Cup. He arrived at the club in January after a bit of a transfer saga, one that seemed destined to end with Arriola returning to Liga MX on a big-money deal from Club América. Unlike most other members of the Gregg Berhalter MLS Goon Squad, though, Arriola has a good amount of experience outside of the nursery-like confines of MLS: he began his senior career with Tijuana alongside several other American players before moving to D.C. United in 2017.

Arriola has been part of the national team system since he was 15, and he’s earned the trust of several USMNT coaches. He made his senior debut under Jurgen Klinsmann, even started the infamous 2–1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago under Bruce Arena, and scored the first goal of the Gregg Berhalter era. Perhaps sensing the direction of that latter era, Arriola tried his luck in Europe for the first time in January of 2021, joining Championship side Swansea on a loan along with USMNT teammate Jordan Morris. Like Morris, Arriola suffered an early injury and played in only three games for the Swans before shuffling back across the Atlantic.

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?

(This was right after Arriola’s scuppered move to Club America.)

How Does He Play?

Arriola is a winger. The U.S.’s wing corps is as deep as any on the roster—it’s already going to be a headache getting Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, and Gio Reyna on the field as much as possible—so thankfully Arriola will not be starting in Qatar unless something goes horribly wrong. Berhalter is as loyal to Arriola as he is any player on the team, however, which means he will probably see some minutes at the World Cup despite plenty of worthwhile soccer arguments against such an outcome.

As hinted at above, Arriola’s most useful skill is as a pest. He’s not a great presser exactly, but he is notably relentless. Whenever he plays for the U.S., he sprints around and makes things difficult for opposing full backs. He works tremendously hard on and off the ball, running around with a pugilistic facial expression at full speed all the time. That’s not nothing, and it’s occasionally something; he has a solid goalscoring record for both club and country, and he’s scored most of those goals by running into the right spot at the right time. Arriola is 5-foot-6, though he plays with the physicality of a man several inches taller. He is never afraid to get into someone’s chest and he does not like to pass up any opportunity to challenge for the ball.

Unfortunately, soccer is about more than running. Arriola is a decent technician at the MLS level, though he is a clear step below most of his USMNT teammates. He’s not much of a passer, is prone to losing the ball under the slightest pressure, and he doesn’t make fast enough or good enough decisions in the attack to warrant a start over any of the Europe-based guys. His speed occasionally helps him dribble past defenders, space he then tends to squander with an errant touch or a poor pass. His theoretical best use is as a late sub, when his legs will be relatively more useful against tired players.

Wonderteen Index

The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.

Though he has a notable flair for the silly stuff, Arriola is 27 and has played three games in Europe. He earns a 1 out of 7.

Arriola was once one of the most intriguing young players in the U.S. youth setup when he was with Tijuana, and while it became clear there that he belonged at a decently high level and could be useful for the senior team, his technical development’s stalled trajectory also made it clear that he would never feature as a star for the senior team. I don’t want to be overly negative towards Arriola, as he really has become one of the better attackers in MLS, though this series is not about MLS, it’s about the Champions League-level players Arriola is competing with. In this context, he’s shown exactly how useful he can be (not very).

Can He Play Right Back?

The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.

Arriola plays on the right side of the field: check. Arriola is good at running and fighting people: check. Arriola has played four MLS games at right back: super check.

Show To Me A Cool Highlight

How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?

Like I said, Berhalter loves this guy. Arriola, Christian Roldan, Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta, and Aaron Long form a group of MLS-based, mid-career players who are less skilled yet more experienced than the squad’s young, Europe-based players, and therefore those MLS players seem to have an inordinate amount of their coach’s trust in big-time moments. (Walker Zimmerman doesn’t count here because he’s really good.) This is not to say that none of these guys are useful at all and have no place in the team. It would be a sin of over-exuberance to roll up to the World Cup with nothing but 22-year-olds. But the U.S. has put forth their best performances when as few as possible of those guys are on the pitch, and also, they all have the same level of World Cup experience as the Aaronson generation. Arriola could produce a real moment for the U.S. as a late substitute; one hopes that’s his only role in Qatar.

How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?

I don’t think he’ll start, as Reyna, Aaronson, Pulisic, a healthy Tim Weah, and Malik Tillman are all better than him. Now that I’ve written that, he’s guaranteed to start the U.S.’s Round of 16 loss to the Dutch!

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