D.C. United postmatch celebration

WASHINGTON — Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse and Bill Hamid agree the best way to gain US national team consideration is to find the club that pushes you to your highest level.

For each of them, that currently means a role as one of the key pieces to D.C. United’s late-season playoff push.

While all three have tested themselves in foreign leagues, their respective moves to MLS – or back to MLS, in Hamid’s case – were made with international play in mind.

With a series of high-profile fall international friendly matches upcoming for the USMNT – against Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, England, and Italy – each of them is hoping to find themselves back in the fold.

And amid the continuing fallout from the Americans’ failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which has brought about intense discussions over the best approach to player development, their stories show there is no carte blanche answer.

“It’s all situational,” says Canouse, a 23-year-old holding midfielder who came to D.C. a year ago after more than half a decade working up through Bundesliga side TSG Hoffenheim’s academy. “And you just have to go with your gut and weigh the pros and cons on how you can become the best player.”

From a guy to the guy

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Paul Arriola | USA Today Sports Images

Like Canouse, Arriola came to D.C. at the end of the 2017 MLS Secondary Transfer Window from abroad. Unlike Canouse, Hamid and the vast majority of American players, the versatile 23-year-old midfielder arrived after playing for a club that is virtually in his own backyard.

A San Diego area native, Arriola could live at home while crossing the border to play for Liga MX’s Xolos de Tijuana, where he made his debut at age 18 and made more than 100 first-team appearances.

That consistency led to regular US call-ups over the past year and a half, where he experienced the high of winning the 2017 Concacaf Gold Cup and the low of the Americans’ World Cup elimination defeat at Trinidad and Tobago.

It also led to a slightly more advanced midfield role than at Tijuana, who often utilized him as an outside wingback.

The chance to prove his worth offensively as D.C.’s only Designated Player signing at the time made moving attractive.

“It didn’t matter to me whether, when I came, this was a playoff-type team,” Arriola said. “It was more, ‘How am I going to fit in with this team? And how can I help the team raise the level as well as how can they help me raise my own level and continue to grow as a player?’”

Arriola required time to settle in, posting only two assists in 2017 and not scoring his first MLS goal until the emotional finale at RFK Stadium in October.

This season, he began to find more of a rhythm after suggesting a move to more of a box-to-box role, and has flourished since star forward Wayne Rooney’s summer arrive. He believes his four goals and eight assists this season are a step forward for his international credentials.

“The constant talk with Bruce [Arena] when he was in charge, with Dave [Sarachan] and Richie Williams and all those guys was finishing off plays,” Arriola says. “I don’t think their worry is, ‘Can he play out wide or what position is he?’ Their thing has always been, ‘You get down the line, you do really well to beat your man, but now your cross, can you find someone to finish a play or can you finish a play yourself after you get in behind?’ And this year I think I’ve done a great job. I’m very proud of myself, I’m very confident.”

A simpler equation 

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Russell Canouse | USA Today Sports Images

For Canouse and Hamid, their moves were simpler decisions based on playing time. Hamid may even end up back in Europe after his year-and-a-half loan from Danish side FC Midtjylland expires following the 2019 season.

But in the all-or-nothing world of getting into the side as a goalkeeper, Hamid played only three first-team games since departing D.C. at the end of the 2017 MLS campaign. 

“For a player with the aspirations of being regularly a part of the national team, and with the expectation of being a national team player, you have to play regularly,” the 27-year-old explained upon his return to D.C. early this month.

Canouse received only one first-team appearance with Hoffenheim, but featured regularly in the 2. Bundesliga on loan with VfL Bochum in the 2016-17 season.

“I obviously went through the whole system at Hoffenheim, made my debut with them, which was unbelievable,” Canouse said. “That’s what I obviously worked toward my whole youth career. It didn’t turn out to be more. I wanted it to be more. I thought I deserved a second opportunity that I didn’t get, and it’s a very fine line.”

No pressure? Please 

Young American trio at heart of DC United late-season playoff push - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/BillHamid_0.jpg

Bill Hamid | USA Today Sports Images

If anything, D.C.’s young American trio is embracing the club at a time when it is challenging the notion that playing for the Black-and-Red means playing under the radar.

Rooney’s arrival has brought a global focus to the club and the opening of Audi Field has boosted the team’s local profile as well.

Hamid, in particular, also faces the specter of performing in his home city and as the one of the club’s most recognizable faces behind Rooney and coach Ben Olsen.

“I had to give away 30 tickets for the game this past weekend,” Hamid said after D.C.’s 2-0 win over New England on Aug. 19. “It’s only going to grow, which is not going to be easy to deal with. But it’s actually very exciting to have so many people that want to come and support the club and help us represent this city.”

While Arriola says the atmosphere around Liga MX remains more intense than in MLS, he also says he’s faced more scrutiny personally in Washington than in Tijuana, as the banner 2017 summer signing for a club that needed hope.

“In the beginning it was obviously tough,” Arriola said. “There was pressure on me, which is fine. I like that. I talked about that the first day I got here. Pressure, it means you have to raise your level.”