IMAGE: Arriola v. CLB

Arriola proves versatility in central midfield transition

Since making the transition to the number eight role in the game against Real Salt Lake on May 12 at Rio Tinto Stadium, Paul Arriola has been a spark plug for the Black-and-Red. Despite having to operate in a 10-man midfield against Real Salt Lake due to an early sending off for defender Joseph Mora, Arriola was a bright spot for United and scored the opening goal for the Black-and-Red in the ninth minute. His May 12 performance reinforced Olsen’s decision to shift Arriola inside, and in the next match against San Jose, the California native created six chances in the 3-1 win—the most chances created by a United player in a single match since Luciano Acosta created six chances in the 6-2 win over Chicago on Aug. 27, 2016.

Arriola's contributions in the midfield also extend further than just creating chances on the offensive end. The midfielder’s energy and work ethic helped United apply constant defensive pressure in the opposition’s half against Real Salt Lake, San Jose, and LAFC. 

“The most positive factor he’s given us is his ability to pressure the ball and make other teams uncomfortable in possession, in particular the center backs and back four,” Ben Olsen, United's head coach, said. “He doesn’t allow them to get into a rhythm and he sets the tone for us defending from the front. Other guys followed that lead and the way we've pressed as a group the last couple games was as good as we’ve done all year. A lot of times that translates into goals and turnovers higher up the field. Other than that, he is extremely hard working and gritty and has been very good in possession. He finds good pockets of space and creates plus one situations in the offensive third—it’s been a good transition. I think he’s enjoying the central role and his teammates are feeding off some of his energy.”

One of the recurring themes to some of the world's most elite midfielders is the aura of simplicity while on the ball. While spectators are often drawn to the flair, Arriola finds the beauty in keeping it simple and being an important pivoting point in the midfield. He leads the team in passing accuracy in the opposition’s half (for players with over 200 passes in the opposition's half) with 74.26 percent and has provided young players like compatriot Chris Durkin with an example of how to operate the midfield. 

"I think Paul is a very dynamic and aggressive player," Durkin said. "You know what you're going to get out of him. You're going to get someone who will work hard for the team and will put their head down and be that reliable option. Being that dynamic option out wide on the wing has helped us in the middle with his quick feet and speed of play. I've been really happy playing alongside him and he's taken some weight off of my shoulders on the defensive side of it. It’s been a good transition for him."

At just 23-years-old, Arriola still has a high ceiling for continuing to grow and develop as a player. With four assists and a goal to his name in 2018, Olsen will be contemplating whether or not to make Arriola's transition to the center of midfield a permanent one. Olsen was defined by his willingness to work hard and his grit on the field as a player—now Arriola possesses the same intangible characteristics and Olsen will be hopeful that his energy and hunger on the field will permeate through the rest of the squad this season.