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Paul Arriola returns to USMNT after World Cup talk

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CARSON, Calif. — Earlier this month, Paul Arriola received word that an assistant with the U.S. men’s national soccer team wanted to talk to him about coming to the annual winter training camp.

Two months had passed since Arriola was on Gregg Berhalter’s final roster before the Americans ventured to Qatar for the World Cup — a decision he said had left him “a little shell-shocked” and crying in his car for an hour.

The conversation with BJ Callaghan had to wait. Arriola was to be married the next day.

However, the timing was appropriate. His wedding to Akela Banuelos at an ocean view in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, would mark the beginning of a new journey, and now here the national team offered a fresh start.

“A lot of situations that we go through, we don’t have the ability to dictate how they go, do we?” Arriola said Tuesday. “I had no control over whether I would be in the squad for the World Cup, but I had control over how I would react.

“As a married man now, where hopefully one day I will have children. I want them to be able to look at their dad and say that he literally had the failure of his dreams and he chose to respond by getting back up and still being willing to be a part of the program and continue to play.”

Arriola welcomed the invitation to this MLS-heavy camp, the first since the U.S. lost to the Netherlands in the World Cup Round of 16 on Dec. 3. He is among 24 players preparing for friendlies against Serbia on Wednesday in Los Angeles and Colombia on Saturday in Carson – but the only one to experience the heartache of Berhalter’s World Cup roster decisions.

Five contestants here were in Qatar, but none of the others were under serious consideration last fall.

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“The coaches told me they totally understand if I didn’t want to come in and didn’t want to be a part of it, which is every player’s reaction at first,” Arriola said. “The last couple of weeks (before I made up my mind), I had gotten to the point where I accepted that I wasn’t going to make the World Cup team. And I’m not going to let that hold me back.”

However, Arriola said he might have felt differently if Berhalter had asked. Berhalter’s contract expired on December 31. On top of that, as the NFL continues to evaluate his — and the team’s — performance during his four-year tenure and whether to offer a new deal, Berhalter is being investigated for kicking his future wife. 1991.

Berhalter’s breakup with forward Gio Reyna’s family has added another uncomfortable layer to the uncertainty about the program’s direction.

“It would have been even harder for me to think about coming back if Gregg was the one calling me,” Arriola said. Because of the relationship he had built with the staff as a whole and the players over the years, he added, “there was definitely less hesitation.”

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Arriola described the moment Berhalter told him he had not made the World Cup team. Five days before the 26-man roster would be announced, a home team had just finished camp in Frisco, Tex. It was a Saturday. The players, Arriola said, were told they would learn their roster fate Sunday.

From the domestic camp, Arriola was the only serious candidate cut – the rest were with European clubs – so Berhalter decided to tell Arriola in person a day earlier.

Arriola didn’t expect to hear one way or the other. He was cleansed. He said he told Berhalter, “I respect you as a coach. I respect you as a person, and I also respect your decision. I disagree with your decision. I think it’s a mistake.”

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Arriola appeared to have lost out to Jordan Morris, a Seattle Sounders forward who played two late games at the World Cup.

Arriola watched the tournament with family in California, then began planning his wedding and the start of the MLS preseason. All the while, he said, he couldn’t stop thinking about his national team future.

Two things influenced his decision to continue, Arriola said. One was an article in the Athletic in which midfielder Sacha Kljestan described his career as “10 times better” after missing out on the US World Cup squad in 2014. Kljestan returned to the team and scored twice in 2018 World Cup qualifiers and last fall ended a 17-year professional career.

The other influential element came from his mother-in-law’s doctor. During an appointment, the doctor asked if Arriola wanted to continue playing for the national team. She said she didn’t know.

She relayed the doctor’s message to her son-in-law: “He just needs to continue.” He has to do it for you, for everyone who loves him and supports him and who thinks he should have been at the World Cup. He can’t let this break him down.”

Arriola also spoke regularly with one of his closest friends, DC United’s Russell Canouse.

“He was deeply upset and frustrated and just struggling to cope,” Canouse said. “The fact that he is in camp now shows his personality and character.”

The current staff turned to Arriola – and WC players Walker Zimmerman, Sean Johnson, Jesús Ferreira and Kellyn Acosta – to provide guidance to a group of 12 players aged 23 and under. On this list, Arriola’s 48 caps are second only to Acosta’s 55, and his 10 goals are the most.

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Unlike the five World Cup players who are here, “it’s a difficult scenario (for Arriola) because I can’t imagine what he went through not going to the World Cup after being with us for so long time,” said Anthony Hudson, a WC assistant positioned at the head of this camp. “We questioned whether he would or how he would feel, but his response was as you would expect from such a good person and a good character.”

Arriola, who turns 28 on Feb. 5, acknowledges he may not have a long-term future with the U.S. team. The next WC is 3½ years away.

“I understand this is a transition period between the World Cups,” he said. “For me it was more about living in the moment, making this a statement for myself and the people around me and playing for them – just enjoy this experience right now.”

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