Determined and persistent, much like his indefatigable presence on the field, Paul Arriola was intent on making a leap in 2020.
In D.C. United's transition to an existence post-Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta, Arriola challenged himself to step up.
"I want to be an elite player," Arriola told MLSsoccer.com in October. "This offseason I can’t stop. Next season I need to be an elite player, especially without Wayne Rooney. I feel ready for it.”
As fickle and cruel fate can be, an ice-cold bucket of water was poured on those 2020 aspirations for Arriola when the US international went down with a partially torn ACL in a preseason match on Saturday. Now, Arriola shifts to injury recovery mode, away from the bright lights and stadiums of supporters. A timetable for his return has not yet been set.
While obviously dejected about missing significant time, he is resolute and took the news in stride, his perspective broadened in the aftermath of his father's passing in 2018.
Things are still alright. A source tells MLSsoccer.com that player and club had just kicked off negotiations over a new contract and, although talks have paused following the injury, they are expected to resume in due time.
Until then, D.C. United and the USMNT are forced into alternative options.
Up steps Julian Gressel
The injury to Arriola may clear up one of the biggest questions hanging over D.C. United heading into the 2020 season: in which position will Julian Gressel predominantly be deployed?
When the club acquired the uber-versatile creator, much discussions was had over whether he'd be a right back, winger, box-to-box midfielder or even a No. 10 at times. Gressel made his name as a right wingback creating chances at an elite level with Atlanta United and spent times in other positions when the club set up in a back four.
Thankfully, the club assembled solid depth across attacking midfield. Underneath Ola Kamara, D.C.'s first choice grouping will be Yamil Asad, Edison Flores and Gressel. Should those first two miss any time — both are recovering from knocks — Gressel would slot central with Ema Boateng and Ulises Segura inserted on the wings.
In the club's most recent preseason match, the group featuring mostly starters included Canouse at right back, Felipe and Moreno at defensive midfield and Gressel, Griffin Yow and Segura underneath Kamara. Flores and Asad did not appear.
A first choice XI without Arriola probably looks like this:
Who will Berhalter trust?
Arriola had already made the jump, not just to being a regular US internationa but a fulcrum under head coach Gregg Berhalter. He started and played the majority of five games at the Gold Cup, sitting on the bench only in the final group stage game after the USMNT had sealed their fate. He's played on both wings, becoming a dependable presence.
As well as missing March friendlies, Arriola will be unavailable for the inaugural Nations League final championship in June. and could even be out for the first few matches of World Cup qualifying in September. Given the importance of a strong start on the back off failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Berhalter will surely be hoping Arriola is back in time for the kick off of World Cup qualifying in September.
Our very own Matt Doyle wrote it perfectly last month: Arriola is the epitome of a Concacaf grinder. Replacing Arriola isn't exclusively about quality, it's about the total package.
Depending on whether Christian Pulisic is deployed as a No. 10 or a winger, he and Jordan Morris could start on each flank. Morris, like Arriola, is a regular with the national team and offers both pace and work-rate. Corey Baird is another option in that mold, while a panoply of promising youngsters like Uly Llanez, Gio Reyna, Paxton Pomykal and Brenden Aaronson could be given opportunities, though they may all be with the U-23s.
Given how much can change quickly in international soccer and the USMNT — how often have we penned projected XIs with Tyler Adams, Pulisic, Tim Weah and others only for injuries to ruin our plans? —we'll spare this space a projected XI.