CARSON, Calif. – Paul Arriola became a contributor with Club Tijuana much sooner than he thought possible, so now he heads into his second Liga MX campaign looking to build on the past six months.
The 18-year-old forward from Chula Vista, just a few miles north of the border, saw time in 17 of the Xoloitzcuintles' 21 competitive matches during the Apertura season, making seven starts – three in league play and four in the CONCACAF Champions League – and scoring three goals.
“It definitely surpassed expectations,” Arriola told MLSsoccer.com recently. “I just thought about earning my spot on the Under-20 team. To be able to make my mark on the first team, be a player who people know about and people wanted to see go in and make an impact [was beyond my anticipation]. Luckily, I was able to do that.”
He hopes to do more during the Clausura for Tijuana, who open the season Saturday night against Atlas in Guadalajara. That means impressing new coach César Farías, called "The Venezuelan José Mourinho."
“Every time a new coach comes in, you always have to prove yourself,” said Arriola, who played up front and on the wing for Xolos during the summer and fall. “They get information about each player, they've seen videos, how each player works. It's been a little different [during preseason], but I've been able to do OK.”
Arriola, who played for the US at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup, signed with Tijuana last May after considering an offer from the LA Galaxy. He was playing in the Galaxy Academy and had been training with the first team – he was introduced as part of the team during an unveiling for season-ticket holders just before the MLS season kicked off – before deciding to head south.
Tijuana's proximity to his home was a factor – “My family has been to every game” at Estadio Caliente, he says – but more important, he said, was the opportunity to develop.
“I was close [to signing with LA], but I was waiting for my opportunity down here in Tijuana. Just weighing both options ...,” Arriola said. “Bruce [Arena] was very honest with me [and] Tijuana was very honest with me about everything. The main thing I was concerned about was playing time.
“Nobody had guaranteed me first-team playing time, so that was my thing. With the Under-20 reserve team down in Tijuana [playing a full schedule], it was more assured for me to get some playing time instead of 12 games, or however many games it is right now, down in the MLS Reserve League. It was important for me, and that's mainly why I chose Tijuana.”
He made his debut and had an assist in Tijuana's Apertura opener last July, a 3-3 draw with Atlas, was in the starting XI in the Xolos' CCL opener at El Salvador's Luis Ángel Firpo in early August, then scored off the bench in a mid-August Liga MX loss at Monterrey and again three days later in a CCL win at Honduras' Victoria. He netted his other goal in the home leg against Victoria.
“That's one of the matchups I'll be looking forward to,” he said. “They've always been a good team, ever since I was growing up and was little, but it'll be funny to be able to look at player that I play with, that I practiced with, and be on the opposite side. Hopefully, I'm able to play and do well, and hopefully we win.”