Paul Arriola
Courtesy of Robert Mora/LA Galaxy

Paul Arriola signing the latest blow in growing battle between MLS, Mexico for youth talent

If Major League Soccer clubs weren’t concerned about the rising threat of Mexican teams stealing away talent from their own back yards before, look no further than the case of Paul Arriola as a harbinger of potential bad things to come.

The San Diego-area teenager turned down an offer from the LA Galaxy to join Mexican side Club Tijuana last week, marking the latest case of a promising young American player steered towards a career in Mexico, rather than Major League Soccer.

“I thank the Galaxy for giving me a wonderful opportunity to train with their first team and be a part of their first team which really taught me a lot," Arriola told upon making the decision, "but ultimately, I believe that Tijuana is the best place for me and my future."

While the scenario wasn’t completely unexpected – Arriola is from Chula Vista, Calif., where he’ll live with his family while commuting over the border to train with Tijuana – it’s certainly disheartening for MLS. The Galaxy have lost other academy products to clubs in Germany and Guatemala, but Arriola’s high-profile exit is the first time they’ve lost a player to Tijuana.

“Mexico is a real issue,” Galaxy president Chris Klein says. “Our players shouldn’t be leaving to go to Mexico. Are some going to leave? Yes. But they are in our back yard, and their clubs are fighting to get into our academy’s training, to watch our players play. We have agents trying to get in, speaking with our players every day. It is a major issue.”

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Klein says that while the Galaxy has a good relationship with Club Tijuana – they played a friendly match at The Home Depot Center earlier this year – it hasn’t stopped the Xolos’ scouts from watching Galaxy practices and approaching players about the potential move to Mexico.

“They are literally watching out practices over the fences, and waiting for the chance to talk to our players. We’ve had it all,” Klein says. “Can we stop them? No.”

The problem is real in Dallas too, where Chris Hayden, the vice president of FC Dallas Youth, has noticed an uptick in eager Mexican team scouts watching his FC Dallas academy players.

“We’ve found that a lot of the Mexican league scouts – everywhere we go, the development academy games, an MLS game – they’re there,” Hayden said. “They’re looking, watching. They’re talking to players in our programs, and even in the non-MLS academies, those players are catching their eye.

“It’s an increasing threat. More and more of the MLS teams are doing it right by getting the kids at a younger age, and the development models are right. We’re producing better and better players at the younger ages, but because for a lot of those kids there isn’t a contract in place, it’s like a free talent pool.”

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MLS teams are subject to losing any academy player up until the point he signs a first-team contract, and unlike the model used in other some other countries, MLS teams are not compensated if their youth player turns professional for another team.

Klein’s resigned to that fact that he’ll lose a player from time to time, but that doesn’t mean he’s not eager to change the situation. He’s entertained the idea of setting up a satellite academy in the San Diego area to better compete with Tijuana, and he’s also contacted officials from both MLS and U.S. Soccer about the threat that could hinder the league’s ability to keep the best American talent north of the border.

Still, some in Southern California aren’t concerned for the Galaxy’s welfare just yet. Jorge Salcedo recruited Arriola for three years before the teenager opted out of a college scholarship at UCLA, but the longtime Bruins head coach doesn’t expect Klein and the Galaxy to dwell too long on the one that got away.

“I know people are talking about Paul Arriola and how the Galaxy may have lost him,” Salcedo says, “but I’m sure there’s going to be another Paul Arriola coming through next week.”