Paul Arriola put in enormous amounts of work this year, grinding through a painstaking recovery from the torn ACL he suffered during D.C. United’s preseason just in time to return to match action in his club’s 2020 finale on Decision Day presented by AT&T.
International duty demands a whole other level of output, however, as the 25-year-old winger was reminded of upon reporting to the US men’s national team’s December camp in Florida this week ahead of an international friendly against El Salvador Dec. 9 (7:30 pm ET | UniMás, TUDN) at Inter Miami CF Stadium.
“There's nothing really that compares to this,” Arriola told reporters in a Wednesday afternoon conference call from Fort Lauderdale, where the USMNT have set up shop at Inter Miami’s training complex. “I joked around with the staff today and they had said, ‘you look great, you look fit,’ and I said ‘man, well, I don't feel as great as you guys are telling me.’
“But that's perfect. That's a big confidence booster for me.”
Even for those who haven’t overcome a catastrophic injury or missed months of action, there’s a distinct sense of a quickening pace in and around the USMNT. Competition for places and opportunities seems to be ramping up as the player pool grows larger and more talent-rich.
The clock is ticking loudly as World Cup and Olympic qualifying loom in 2021, and after last month’s US gathering showcased the burgeoning ranks of top young talent based in Europe, a mostly domestic group is now aiming to state their case in similar fashion.
“It's awesome. It's a great problem to have, when everyone feels pressure to perform and knows that they have to go out there every training session and try and impress," said center back Walker Zimmerman, at age 27 the fourth-oldest player in this camp.
A rising tide of quality is a challenge, but also a source of optimism, for the individuals involved.
“It's exciting to see all the young talent that's coming up in Europe, in MLS, in this camp,” said Arriola. “We have amazing players and I think the country should be excited for what's to come for the national team. And our job is to push them and their job is to push us, and I think we're going to continue that. I think we'll get to where we want to be real soon.
“I definitely feel that there's a different sense of urgency, and at the same time, I think that's going to raise everyone's game,” he added. “The talent that we have in MLS, in Europe right now, I think is going to raise everyone to push themselves and find another gear in their career. And that's exciting not just for the young guys, but also the other guys who want to take it to the next level.”
Zimmerman pointed to the likes of Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie and Sam Vines, part of a growing list of US-eligible players logging regular minutes at younger and younger ages both at home and abroad and ready to prove themselves to the USMNT. He is among a cadre of incumbents keen to introduce them to the USMNT’s culture ahead of a busy 2021.
“With so many new faces, a lot of young guys, some guys coming back in maybe the second time, it's an opportunity for us to just pass on everything that we've learned, and try and put them on a fast track to understanding who we are as a team, what we're trying to accomplish,” said the Nashville SC standout and freshly-crowned MLS Defender of the Year. “So it's a lot of side conversations, making sure they understand not only tactics, but also team culture, and then just being there to support them, make them feel as comfortable as we possibly can.”