Paul Arriola returns to USMNT after World Cup snub


CARSON, Calif. — Earlier this month, Paul Arriola got word that an assistant with the U.S. men’s national soccer team wanted to talk to him about coming to the annual winter training camp.

It’s been two months since Arriola was on Gregg Berhalter’s final roster before the Americans ventured to Qatar for the World Cup – a decision he said left him “a bit shocked” and crying in his car for an hour.

The conversation with BJ Callaghan would have to wait. Arriola was married the next day.

The timing, however, was apt. His weddings with Akela Banuelos at an ocean view in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, would mark the beginning of a new journey, and now here was the national team offering a fresh start.

“A lot of situations we go through, we don’t get the chance to dictate how they go, do we?” Arriola said Tuesday. “I had no control over whether I would be in the squad for the World Cup, but I had control over how I wanted to respond.

“As a married man now that I will hopefully have children one day. I want them to be able to look at their dad and say that he literally had his dreams fall short and he chose to respond by getting up and still wanting to be a part of the program and keep playing.”

Arriola did accept the invitation to this MLS-heavy camp, the first since the U.S. lost to the Netherlands in the round of 16 of the World Cup on Dec. 3. He is among 24 players preparing for friendlies against Serbia on Wednesday in Los Angeles and Colombia on Saturday in Carson – but the only one to experience the heartbreak of Berhalter’s World Cup roster decisions.

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Five attendees here were in Qatar, but none of the others were seriously considered last fall.

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“The coaches told me that they completely understand if I don’t want to come in and don’t want to be a part of it, which at first, that’s the reaction of all the players,” Arriola said. “The past two weeks [before deciding], I got to the point where I accepted that I didn’t make the World Cup team. And I don’t want to let that hold me back.”

Arriola did say, however, that he might have felt differently if Berhalter had asked. Berhalter’s contract expired on December 31. On top of that, while the U.S. Soccer Federation continues to evaluate his — and the team’s — performance during his four-year tenure and whether to offer a new deal, Berhalter is being investigated for kicking his future wife inside. 1991

Berhalter’s rift with the family of forward Gio Reyna added a second unsavory layer to the uncertainty of the program’s direction.

“It would have been even harder for me to think about coming back if it was Gregg who called me,” Arriola said. Because of the relationship he built with the staff as a whole and the players over the years, he added, “there was definitely less hesitation.”

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Arriola described the moment Berhalter told him he didn’t make the World Cup team. Five days before the 26-man roster was announced, the home squad had just completed camp in Frisco, Tex. It was Saturday. The players, Arriola said, were told they would learn their roster on Sunday.

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From the home camp, Arriola was the only serious contender cut – the rest were with European clubs – so Berhalter decided to tell Arriola in person a day earlier.

Arriola didn’t expect to hear one or the other. He was gutted. He said he told Berhalter: “I respect you as a coach. I respect you as a person, and I also respect your decision. I disagree with your decision. I think it’s a mistake.”

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Arriola appeared to have lost out to Jordan Morris, a Seattle Sounders forward who made two late-game appearances at the World Cup.

Arriola watched the tournament with family in California, then began planning for his wedding and the start of the MLS preseason. Always, he said, he couldn’t help but think about his national team future.

Two things influenced his decision to continue, Arriola said. One was an article in the Athletic in which midfielder Sacha Kljestan described his career as “10 times better” after missing out on the USA’s 2014 World Cup squad. Kljestan returned to the team and scored twice in the qualifiers of the 2018 World Cup and last fall capped a 17-year professional career.

The second influential element came from his mother-in-law’s doctor. During an appointment, the doctor asked if Arriola would continue playing for the national team. She said she didn’t know.

She relayed the doctor’s message to her son-in-law: “He just has to go on. He has to do it for you, for everyone who loves him and supports him and who thinks he should be at the World Cup. He can’t let this destroy him.”

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Arriola also spoke regularly with one of his closest friends, DC United’s Russell Canouse.

“He was deeply saddened and frustrated and just hard to cope with,” Canouse said. “The fact that he is in the camp now shows his personality and character.”

The current staff has turned to Arriola – and World Cup players Walker Zimmerman, Sean Johnson, Jesús Ferreira and Kellyn Acosta – to provide leadership to a group with 12 players aged 23 and under. In this list, Arriola’s 48 caps are second to Acosta’s 55 and his 10 goals are the most.

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Unlike the five World Cup players who are here, “It’s a difficult scenario [for Arriola] because I can’t imagine what he went through, not going to the World Cup after being with us for so long,” said Anthony Hudson, World Cup assistant who is in charge of this camp. “We asked if he would or how he would feel, but his answer was as you would expect from such a good person and good character.”

Arriola, who turns 28 on Feb. 5, acknowledges he may not have a long-term future with the U.S. squad. The next World Cup is 3½ years away.

“I understand that this is a transition period between World Cups,” he said. “For me, it was more about living in the moment, for this to be a statement to myself and to the people around me and to play for them – just enjoy this experience now.”


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