Sunday night didn't quite turn out as hoped for Paul Arriola and the United States men's national team, as they came up just short to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. The U.S. squandered a couple of chances in the first half, and Arriola — one of D.C. United's standout players — went just wide in taking advantage of a misplay in the back by Mexico's defense.
In the end, El Tri denied the U.S. a second consecutive title, winning 1-0 thanks to a fantastic goal from Jonathan Dos Santos in the 73rd minute. It wasn't the ideal finish for the U.S., but for Arriola, his performances over the past month should have helped him solidify a spot in Gregg Berhalter's system for the near future.
Arriola, who Berhalter deployed on the left flank, played in the two pre-tournament friendlies and then started in five of the six Gold Cup games. The only game in which Arriola did not participate was the group finale against Panama, when Berhalter made changes all through his lineup.
The former Xolos man quickly formed a strong partnership with Christian Pulisic, as the two seemed to have an understanding when Pulisic would drift left from his central starting position. This was most noticeable in the opening minutes of the semifinal win over Jamaica, when both Arriola and Pulisic terrorized the Reggae Boyz move after move.
By the end of the tournament, Arriola finished with two goals but found himself oh-so-close on so many more occasions. And while Berhalter switched from Tyler Boyd to Jordan Morris on the wing opposite of Arriola, the 24-year-old continued to play well enough to warrant his inclusion in the team. That was likely due to Arriola's abilities and work rate at both ends of the field. His time in defense with D.C. United, as frustrating as it may be at times, seems to have given him a leg up against the competition at the left wing spot with the national team.
In the future, Arriola might face a bit more competition for playing time at that spot. That could come via Tim Weah, who seems poised to get more playing time this year in France, having just completed a big move to Lille. Or, Pulisic could be shuttled out wide, where he made his name with Borussia Dortmund, if the likes of Paxton Pomykal force their way into a midfield role.
What should help Arriola continue to be an option to start for Berhalter is coming back to a Black-and-Red side that desperately needs the winger to play in his preferred role. Out of necessity in the first half of the season, United head coach Ben Olsen was forced to use Arriola in a myriad of positions. That limited Arriola's minutes as a winger, where he has become a legitimate scoring threat over the past year.
While Arriola was ready to help his team wherever he was needed, it was surely a source of some frustration for Arriola, as he was robbed of minutes where he can contribute the most. But now that Joseph Mora has returned from the injury that meant Olsen had to adapt his system, Arriola should immediately return to the midfield role that he has excelled at since arriving in the District in August 2017.
Arriola is returning to a D.C. side that has struggled of late, having only picked up one win in eight games. In the attacking third, a lack of speed has hindered United's chance creation, a void which Arriola will surely fill. United need to find the sort of rhythm and understanding that they had early in the season, when they won three of their first four games, and Arriola is a big part of that equation.
With the next World Cup cycle on the horizon, the question for Arriola in the U.S. picture is whether or not he'll stay part of the same equation for Berhalter.