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Paul Arriola returns to USMNT after World Cup snub

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CARSON, Calif. — Early this month, Paul Arriola received word that an assistant on the US 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 among Gregg Berhalter’s last roster cuts before the Americans ventured to Qatar for the World Cup — a decision he said had left him “a little shocked” and crying in his car for an hour.

The conversation with BJ Callaghan would have to wait. Arriola was getting married the next day.

The timing, though, was apt. His nuptials with Akela Banuelos at an ocean-view vista in Palos Verdes, Calif., would mark the beginning of a new journey, and now here was the national team offering a fresh start.

“A lot of situations that we go through, we don’t have the opportunity to dictate how they go, right?” Arriola said Tuesday. “I didn’t have control over whether I was going to be on the squad for the World Cup, but I did have control of how I wanted to respond.

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

Arriola did accept the invitation to this MLS-heavy camp, the first since the United States lost to the Netherlands in the World Cup’s round of 16 on Dec. 3. He is among 24 players preparing for friends against Serbia on Wednesday in Los Angeles and Colombia on Saturday in Carson — but the only one who experienced the heartbreak of Berhalter’s World Cup roster decisions.

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

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“The coaches told me they completely understand if I didn’t want to come in and didn’t want to be a part of it, which at first, that’s every players’ reaction,” Arriola said. “The past two weeks [before deciding], I had gotten to the point where I accepted that I didn’t make the World Cup team. And I don’t want to let that hold me back.”

Arriola did say, though, he might have felt differently had Berhalter asked. Berhalter’s contract expired Dec. 31. On top of that, while the US Soccer Federation continues evaluating 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 in 1991.

Berhalter’s rift with attacker Gio Reyna’s family has added a second unsavory layer to the uncertainty of the program’s direction.

“It would have been even harder for me to think about coming back if it were Gregg that was the one that was 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 less hesitation, for sure.”

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Arriola described the moment Berhalter told him he hadn’t made the World Cup team. Five days before the 26-man roster would be announced, a domestic-based squad had just completed camp in Frisco, Tex. It was a Saturday. The players, Arriola said, were told they would learn their roster fates Sunday.

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

Arriola wasn’t expecting to hear one way or the other. He was gutted. 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 its a mistake.”

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Arriola seemed to have lost out to Jordan Morris, a Seattle Sounders attacker who made two late-game appearances at the World Cup.

Arriola watched the tournament with family in California, then began to plan for his wedding and the beginning of MLS preseason. All along, he said he could not help think about his national team future.

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

The second influential element came from his mother-in-law’s doctor. During an appointment, the doctor asked whether Arriola would 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 has to continue. He has to do it for you, for everyone that loves him and supports him and who thinks he should’ve been at the World Cup. He can’t let this break him down.”

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

“He was deeply saddened and frustrated, and just having a hard time of coping,” Canouse said. “The fact he is in the camp now shows his personality and character.”

The current staff turned to Arriola — and World Cup players Walker Zimmerman, Sean Johnson, Jesús Ferreira and Kellyn Acosta — to provide guidance to a group featuring 12 players age 23 and under. On this roster, Arriola’s 48 caps are second to Acosta (55) and his 10 goals are the most.

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Unlike the five World Cup players who are here, “It’s a tricky scenario [for Arriola] because I can’t imagine what he went through not going to the World Cup having been with us for such a long time,” said Anthony Hudson, a World Cup assistant placed in charge of this camp. “We questioned whether he would want to or how he was going to 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 might not have a long-term future with the US squad. The next World Cup is 3½ years away.

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

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