FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Paul Arriola was not too sure he would play on Wednesday. The U.S. Men’s National Team was not sure he would be able to either.
Play, he did. Score, he did. Make a statement, he did.
The USMNT demolished El Salvador, 6-0, on Wednesday night, and the player that got the fun started in the lopsided affair was Arriola. Making his first appearance at the international level since recovering from a devastating ACL injury suffered in February, Arriola played 58 minutes in the friendly at Inter Miami CF Stadium and bagged the winner in the opening half with a low strike.
“It almost brought me to tears after the game when we handed him the Man of the Match because you imagine what he has gone through this year,” said USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter. “You imagine that in January he played in his last game for us, he has played one game since then, and he comes back and performs at this level in December. I am really impressed.
“It shows what type of character Paul has, it shows the work that he has put in, and all the support that his club gave him to get him to this level. I am just really proud of Paul and his comeback is a great story.”
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) December 10, 2020
For the 25-year-old winger, just playing again for the USMNT was a feat to be proud of. Arriola had already officially returned from his knee injury by making a 21-minute cameo for D.C. United in its MLS regular season finale, but being able to start and compete for as long as he did at the international level was another positive and refreshing step as he works his way back to 100 percent.
Never mind the fact that he started the Americans’ impressive first-half spell that ended with five goals in 11 minutes. Arriola showed real determination on his tally in the 17th minute, making a run from his wide right spot towards the center to find the ball and proceeding to finish emphatically with his left foot.
“First of all, it is always an honor,” said Arriola. “I feel like I am continually saying that, especially now after the tough year that I had with injury, but tonight was special. It was not even just the goal for me. It was being out there and being able to execute what our plan was and how we wanted to play.
“It is fun. It is fun being out here with all the guys. … I think the goal was just the icing on the cake. Everything else was more important than the goal itself.”
More than the goal, Arriola, like fellow winger Chris Mueller, was active and involved during his time on the field. The USMNT constantly used its width to plenty of success when attacking the overmatched Salvadorans, hitting diagonal balls and through passes into space for the outside players to run onto.
Naturally, Arriola got his share of touches as a result.
“We were really able to exploit them out wide and that is based on execution,” said Arriola. “That is based on certain players doing the right movements, the timing and the precision of the passes that we had, and that is really encouraging to see.
“It is also obviously a confidence-booster for all of us who are in camp that we are able to see, ‘Hey, this works, and let’s continue to do this because we’re finding a lot of success in it,’ so that’s exciting.”
What is equally as exciting for Berhalter and the USMNT is that Arriola is back in the fold. The attacker may not yet be back at his top form, but he is now that much closer.
“It is a good example for anyone that has a setback,” said Berhalter. “When you have a setback like that you work your way through it and you keep pushing. You don’t give up. I think he did a great job in this camp.”