Paul Arriola was ready to leave the only club he'd ever known. The San Diego native made his professional debut in 2013 with Club Tijuana but since then has been only a sporadic entry on the team.
Miguel Herrera's arrival as coach at the start of 2016 looked to have boosted Arriola's potential for playing time, but the 21-year-old had a "roller-coaster ride last season" that left him frustrated this winter.
"I thought that I had deserved more of a chance to be a regular player and contribute to the team," he told Goal USA. "After the season, my contract was coming close to an end and I kind of had the power to say, 'Look if I’m not playing I have to still grow, I have to become the player that I know I can be and I don’t think right here is the right spot for me.' And they said, 'No, no, no, Miguel believes in you a lot, he wants to give you an opportunity.'"
The directors were speaking honestly. Tijuana bid farewell to winger Gabriel Hauche, who left for Liga MX club Toluca, and forward Dayro Moreno, who returned to his native Colombia to sign with Atletico Nacional. Arriola has started all three of Tijuana's matches so far this season, scoring once and assisting two goals after a frustrating week one defeat to Morelia. That game saw Arriola given a halftime hook after losing his man on a play that eventually led to a penalty kick in a 2-0 defeat. Tijuana has bounced back, however, and currently leads the league after wins against Puebla and Chivas.
While Herrera handed Arriola an opportunity, he also asked him to do something he hadn't done before and at times is deploying him as a wingback. His job still is get up and down the right side, creating chances for his teammates or making something for himself when the opportunity presents itself. But Arriola also has embraced learning more about the defensive part of the game and said he's working to improve both his defending and his crossing ability. Even so, in Herrera's system, Arriola's job is more about making goals happen than keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
"I think so far in the beginning of the season I’ve taken that little leap and it feels good," he said. "In the end, like I said, personally, playing-wise nothing has really changed for me. I’m still the same player that I was last season or the season before where I get the ball and I have to try to create something, take my guy on, get down the line and get crosses in. The only difference is now so far in the season things have been going well where the ball has ended up in the net a couple times with me in the play."
Having the ball end up in the net is euphemistic. Arriola's goal was magnificent. He took a touch to settle the ball, lurched forward and hit it on the bounce past a helpless Puebla goalkeeper in what would turn into a 6-2 rout.
It was the best goal of his career, but more than just earning loads of RTs, the goal put Arriola at ease after a period of stress and uncertainty. There were the frustrations of 2016, the potential of moving to a new club, the questions about picking up new responsibilities. It melted away with the relief of getting back among the goals with the first team.
"it was a nice goal, but I think the thing for me to take out of the goal was just a sigh of relief," he said. "Over the past three years, I only have three league goals. I think that’s something that kind of haunts me, consciously or unconsciously, I think about it. I kind of feel that weight on me like, 'Hey. I got to really put something in, I’ve got to get rid of this.'
"Each game I go in, of course I want to score, I want to do well in, and a lot of times when I had my chances I wouldn’t finish them. To get that goal early on in the season it kind of let me loose."
In Guadalajara, Arriola hit the crossbar with a shot and eventually set up the lone goal of the match against Chivas with a pinpoint cross despite falling off the ball as he delivered it.
Arriola hopes to play with that same calm Friday when Tijuana hosts Cruz Azul at the Estadio Caliente - a venue where the home side has been nearly unbeatable, losing just once in the past 13 matches on the border. While Tijuana sits in first place, Arriola and his teammates know better than most not to take anything for granted. After finishing the previous tournament as the top team in the regular season, Tijuana was blown out by Leon in the first leg of the teams' quarterfinal, 3-0. Despite a stunning comeback in the second leg that saw Xolos draw level despite going down to 10 men early, Leon found a pair of goals late to move on and eliminate Tijuana.
Now, the team is hoping to find rhythm and keep the early momentum it has going through the latter months of the tournament.
"Of course it’s nice, but in the end it’s about getting hot at the right time," Arriola said of being superlider. "Our goal right now is to focus on the playoffs and get there, but the only way we can get there is week-in, week-out getting points and obviously the last week was a huge three points for us to get one in a tough environment, tough opponent against a tough team.
"For us to be able to grind out a game like that and get the three points, it was really nice and kind of showed the team that we can be at times where we kind of sit back and we take the pressure and take the hits. All we need is one chance to take advantage. That’s what we did. Now we face Cruz Azul at home and I think all of us are feeling pretty good coming off the last couple of weeks."
Arriola is working to make sure the good weeks continue, and as he adds more defensive skills to his repertoire he could become an even more enticing prospect for United States coach Bruce Arena to call into the national team.
"I question where I would be used if I were called in. I still hope as a winger if we’re in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, outside right midfielder," he said. "I think still my best traits are attacking and taking people on and I still think my natural position would be a winger position, but I’ve been able to cope and adjust to all the positions on the right side, really. I would even go and say if they needed me I’d be able to perform as a right back, just one that would be a little bit more attacking-minded than the rest, but I would definitely be able to hold my ground down there.
"I think it will be interesting, but I’m excited. I’m excited to continue to help my game defensively and continue to provide in the attack and we’ll see. Hopefully in March I’ll be able to get a call, and we’ll see from there."