WASHINGTON – Paul Arriola has played in both top leagues in North America and in high stakes matches with the US national team. Surely at some point, he’s crossed paths with a player of Wayne Rooney’s pedigree, right?
“Not even close,” Arriola tells MLSsoccer.com. “Not even close.”
Playing with one of the biggest stars in world football will take some getting used to for Arriola and his D.C. United teammates, who trained with Rooney as a full squad for the first time last Friday.
As a relatively new arrival to D.C. himself, Arriola is focused on helping the Black-and-Red’s record signing settle in as one of the guys.
“I think the key for me and my other teammates is to make him feel at home, make him feel a part of the group,” Arriola says. “I told him earlier today, him coming in, it helps us as a group. … He brings a level of respect and professionalism with him and so for us it’s good. It brings a lot of attention to us. It forces us to be on our toes, be sharper on and off the field. From every single standpoint it’s a positive to have.”
That attention was in evidence on Friday, when several dozen reporters covered United’s practice at the RFK Stadium training field, a contingent far larger than the norm. That intensified focus can only help a team that sits in last in the Eastern Conference after playing a brutal 12 of 14 matches on the road to begin the season, says D.C. captain Steve Birnbaum.
“I think that he’s just going to bring guys’ levels up,” Birnbaum tells MLSsoccer.com. “Everyone wants to play better when they’re around him. So that’s only going to make our team better, and the competition is going to make everything better for our team.”
Arriola and Rooney spent several closing minutes of Friday’s session in discussion. From those early exchanges, and from what Arriola saw of Rooney during that first session, Arriola believes D.C.’s new No. 9 will slide easily into the most positionally flexible roster of coach Ben Olsen’s tenure.
“He’s a player who obviously knows what he’s doing, is very good with the ball and holds the ball up,” Arriola says. “For a player like myself who is active, very much like Zoltan [Stieber], Yamil [Asad] or Lucho [Acosta], we like to pass and move and pass and move. I think he’s going to fit in perfect. I think he’s going to complement us and we’re going to complement him.”
And after an early season where D.C. United have dropped 13 points from winning positions, some vocal leadership out of their newest Designated Player signing would also be welcome.
“I think he comes in and automatically he’s a leader, because of the experience he’s had, what he’s gone through, the person that he is,” Arriola says. “[He’s a] very respectable guy. I’ve talked to him two days now, and he’s not a cocky guy at all. He’s very down to earth. He wants to be a part of the group and he wants to help us and he wants to help himself. And I think that’s awesome.”
Says Birnbaum: “I think he’s going to bring that intensity and willingness to win and do whatever it takes. And I think that’s what we need on the field.”