GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Club Tijuana’s American winger Paul Arriola is not only the youngest debutant so far in the Liga MX’s Apertura season, he’s also probably the one who has had the biggest impact.
It’s been a meteoric rise considering that when Arriola spoke to MLSsoccer.com in May, the 18-year-old said the tentative plan was to start off in the Under-20s and gradually build from there. On the Liga MX’s official website, Arriola’s photo is of him wearing the shirt of second-division club Dorados de Sinaloa, perhaps hinting that a move to Tijuana’s sister outfit was also a possibility.
Now Arriola is making an early claim for the first division’s best newcomer award, the same one his teammate and fellow Southern Californian Joe Corona picked up in the Apertura 2011.
The suburban San Diego native was with Tijuana’s U-20s for all of a week-and-a-half before incoming head coach Jorge Almirón called him into the first team’s preseason back in June.
“In the opening friendly game, I got a goal and from then on I had the confidence, and my coach and teammates had confidence in me,” Arriola told MLSsoccer.com last weekend. “So now I’m here and I’m playing.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. Arriola is not just playing, but has people both sides of the border sitting up and taking notice.
The US youth international created two goals in his first two substitute appearances and has scored twice in the 430 minutes of playing time he's earned over Tijuana's Liga MX and CONCACAF Champions League campaigns.
Arriola has stood out with his lightning pace and work ethic, and now the questions around Tijuana about who the new blond-haired, blue-eyed kid is have been replaced by autograph hunters and fans wanting photos.
It might be a little too much for some youngsters, but Arriola seems to have his head screwed on straight.
“People ask you for signatures and photos and all that kind of stuff but ultimately I’m about playing,” he said.
It’s not all been plain sailing on the defensive front, however, for the player whose Mexican citizenship came via his great-grandparents and who is still getting to grips with working in Spanish.
“It’s been a difficult transition because defending in a professional league in the top division compared to an academy or [against] people my age is very different,” Arriola admitted. “I learned that in the first game of the league against Atlas. They’re just totally different in mentality – smarter.”
It’s no secret that the LA Galaxy sought to sign their former academy product and that he chose Xolos instead. But he stressed that one of the main factors was to continue living at home with his family in Chula Vista, just a short drive across the border from Tijuana.
“When people asked me why I passed up the Galaxy, one of my main reasons was to be happy,” explained Arriola. “I felt I could be happy here at home with my family getting the best of both worlds, and so far I’ve been able to show that on the field.”
Arriola has certainly done more than anyone expected this early in his career in Mexico and he is determined to build on a great start.
“It’s funny how hungry you are after you get a little bit of success to continue it,” Arriola summed up. “You start with the U-20s thinking, 'I’ll be happy just going to preseason with the first team,' and I get to preseason and I start doing well, I score a goal and now I want more goals. And from there it gets to playing time.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.