HOBOKEN, N.J. — Almost exactly a year ago, Paul Arriola's life forever changed when his father, Arturo Arriola III, passed away at age 48.
Earlier this year, the D.C. United and US national team star produced one of the most touching moments of the 2019 season. Arriola scored a wonderful, curling goal against Sporting KC on a bleak, rainy May evening in the nation's capital. After the ball nestled into the top corner, unperturbed by the wetness and coldness of the earth beneath his now soaked right foot, Arriola removed the shoe that had just produced the moment of brilliance. Using it as a proxy for a phone, Arriola pointed to the heavens.
Arturo was on the other end of the call.
“It’s been a difficult year," Arriola told MLSsoccer.com in September. "The way I’ve been able to cope is through soccer.
"Week in, week out, I show up and put my total focus into it," he continued. "That’s nice when you don’t have to think about a tragic incident like that. I lost my grandfather a few weeks ago; coming from my dad’s side, that’s been hard. Mentally, truthfully, it’s been exhausting."
The heartbreak hasn't stopped Arriola from becoming one of D.C.'s most consistent players as well as a regular with the USMNT.
Arriola played second fiddle to Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta last season as the pair lit the league on fire, and he was content to do so. The Black-and-Red were winning and he puts collective goals ahead of his own, even filling in at right back more than a few times in 2018.
This season, particularly as Rooney's future now lies back in England and Acosta has fallen out of the starting XI, D.C. have been more of Arriola's team, even if his raw boxscore numbers aren't quite as good as 2018's.
“This year has been really productive for me," Arriola said. "But looking back on the year, I’m disappointed in myself with the stats. This year I created a lot, got opportunities, but haven’t put them away. Having said that, I have the understanding of what I brought to this team, how I fit and how important a role I’ve played. In the collective, it’s much more important than stats."
Last year he had 7g/8a, while he finished with 6g/2a in the 2019 regular season. Perhaps that's down to the team scoring 18 fewer goals than last year, relying more on defense than attack as their route to the playoffs after a summer swoon. Behind the raw goals + assists, Arriola's underlying numbers paint an optimistic picture. He has 6.55 xG, compared to 4.15 xG in 2018, while his expected assists are similar (2.5xA this year, 2.93xA last).
"When I came into the league I said I wanted to be a goalscorer, someone who people could look to for big plays, so it’s disappointing in that sense. I want to be an elite player," Arriola said matter-of-factly. "This offseason I can’t stop. Next season I need to be an elite player, especially without Wayne Rooney. I feel ready for it.”
One way that has manifested itself is his ability across multiple places in the starting XI. Already one of the most positionally fungible high-level players in the league, Arriola became accustomed to yet another role towards the end of the season, shifting to an all-action No. 10 as D.C. leaned into being a combative, difficult-to-beat, low-block team.
"It’s been fun, it’s been another challenge," Arriola said. "Each position comes with its own challenges. The awareness I feel I have of the game, being a part of the national team and playing under many different coaches now, I’ve been able to absorb different styles. I feel good about a lot of positions on the field. It makes it easy for me. It takes a game or two to adjust, but I’ve found a steady balance in the No. 10 role right now, defensively and offensively.”
A natural right-sided attacker, Arriola has played right wing, right mid, left mid and even right back over the years with minimal fuss. Playing through the center has been no different.
“I’m really glad about the year, I feel great tactically," Arriola said. "Gregg Berhalter has helped me a lot too. I’m ready to push for the end of the year, push and win a championship. Next year, keep going forward to be an elite player.”
Wrapping up his second full season with D.C. after joining midway through the 2017 season, Arriola credits United with the latest round of his development into a more consistent attacker. He has become a leader and a national team regular while wearing the United crest.
One day, though, he aspires to head to Europe, but only if it's beneficial for all parties.
“Definitely," he said of wanting to play in Europe without hesitation. "When I came to D.C., I had an option to go to Portugal. Due to the circumstances – I needed playing time, I needed a different challenge I could get in D.C., I didn't go. But I‘m constantly trying to grow. MLS has helped me grow to a consistent level. That being said, if there was the right team in the right spot for me to go, I’d love to go. With D.C. being able to financially get a benefit. If it makes sense for them, makes sense for me, makes sense for the new club, I’m completely open to it. It’s not something I’m going crazy for. I’d love to play in Europe, but only the right opportunity and challenges.”
For now, his mind is firmly on the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, and the USMNT's start to Concacaf Nations League play with Arriola as a key contributor to the squad. The past year has helped teach him how to persist, how to handle all the unexpected hardships life can throw your way.
With a ball at his feet, of course.
"There's ups and downs, being from California but living in D.C. and trying to keep the connections," Arriola said. "My girlfriend has really helped me out, pushed me through it. My teammates and the club has been great. It’s another one of those things you can’t prepare for, you don’t know how to get through it. But when the time comes, you just have to get through it. You only have two choices: You go down and you let it affect the type of life you’ll live, or you use it as motivation. I’m happy I’ve had soccer to push me in the right direction.”