Arriola' s venture captures paradigm
The drive from Chula Vista to Tijuana takes about as long as the typical jaunt to a neighborhood grocery store. It isn't without complications: The return journey doubles to 30 or 40 minutes given the lengthy lines to return to the United States in San Ysidro, even with a SENTRI pass. There are other hurdles as well.
Just ask Paul Arriola.
Several Club Tijuana players make a similar trek from San Diego or nearby locales every day, but only one of them serves as a proxy for the ongoing fight along the border. Mexican clubs increasingly cross into the United States in search of talented prospects, but few of those incursions have yielded a player with Arriola's promise.
For a while, it looked like Arriola might follow the increasingly established path in then USA: succeed at a local club, transition to a MLS youth academy setup for greater opportunities and wait for a contract offer to leap into the professional game. He never completed it.
“I did have a chance to sign a homegrown contract with LA, but I decided that Tijuana was the best place for me,” Arriola explained in an email. “The main influence was playing time. (LA Galaxy manager) Bruce Arena was very straightforward with me during preseason and had told me that if I had signed that I would most likely be looking at zero minutes with the first team for 2013, fighting for a spot on the reserves and getting minutes with the academy.”
But unlike a lot of his peers, Arriola, 18, possessed a viable alternative close to his home. He didn't have to accept the Galaxy's offer. He could pursue his goals south of the border with the help of his Mexican lineage and a strong youth résumé that included three appearances for the U.S. at the 2011 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Mexico. The Xolos invied him for a training spell and ended up tablling an offer for a place in their under-20 squad.
Arriola's flexibility and proximity to the Mexican border placed the Galaxy in a difficult position when the club offered him a contract during preseason. MLS allots two designated slots on its 30-man roster for Homegrown players and permits teams to spend a modest, undisclosed sum to sign both of them to contracts higher than the minimum salary ($46,500 for roster slots 1-24, $35,125 for slots 25-30, according to league roster rules and regulations). Promising forwards Jack McBean and Gyasi Zardes likely fit into those spots for the Galaxy based upon their compensation, creating the need to shoehorn other Homegrown players -- including previous arrivals Oscar Sorto and José Villarreal -- into a different category.
MLS clubs may sign additional Homegrown players as they see fit (typically for the minimum salary for budgetary purposes, though teams are not restricted) but those potential deals -- depending on the deployment of resources used to compile the squad -- force difficult decisions because they place pressure on players to perform immediately if the squad lacks experienced reserves. The demands of external competitions and international callus, and the presence of several promising players in the Academy setup, further complicate roster management matters for the Galaxy.
Even bearing in mind the league's overt desire to retain talented young players and the pliable nature of the MLS salary budget, this situation opens the door for motivated sides from Mexico -- or other foreign destinations -- to trump those offers with promises of more money and more playing time. This isn't a problem faced by all teams at the moment -- targeted clubs like the Galaxy, Chivas USA, FC Dallas and Houston are fighting back to protect their territory -- but MLS remains keenly aware of its potential impact on its increasingly robust Academy structures.
“I wouldn't say it's a concern,” MLS executive vice president, player relations and competition Todd Durbin said prior to the MLS All-Star Game in July. “It is an issue. In some ways, it's a good problem to have. It's saying that we're developing quality players that want to pursue their careers and they're wanted by other clubs. It's an area we actually talked about at the (Board of Governors) meeting. We're investing significant amounts of money into our youth systems. We've signed a number of homegrown players. We've had a lot of success, but we need to make sure that we're going to make good on those investments and put initiatives and programs in place that will allow us to retain them.”
As MLS sorts out how it wants to move forward, Arriola receives the regular match practice he could not expect with the Galaxy. He advanced quickly through the ranks after graduating from high school and impressed during preseason, scoring a goal against Club América in a friendly in San Diego (“Definitely the best moment in my life,” Arriola said.). He earned his place in the first-team squad by obtaining Mexican citizenship to count as a domestic player, began producing quickly (he swept home his first Liga MX goal in August to spark a 2-1 victory over Monterrey) and proving himself as a viable option in Liga MX and CONCACAF Champions League play with his incisiveness, his pace and his willingness to challenge players one-versus-one.
“The learning curve is steep,” Arriola said. “I'm always trying to learn from my teammates on what to do and how to do it, but, ultimately, each game when I am able to get on to the field, I do what I know how to do and my teammates and coaches respect that.”
Arriola's desire to stay within himself bodes well for his future. He still lives with his parents in Chula Vista. He plans to stick with the United States national team setup instead of forging a new alliance with his new passport. He yearns to pursue the objectives that urged him to eschew the safe course for the bold path.
More than a few players preceded him along this particular trail and plenty will follow him, but Arriola's commute captures the current cross-border paradigm most neatly. The trek may feel like second nature to him, but it remains a novel concept. Whether it emerges as a more common trip hinges on his continued development and success in Liga MX and how the two countries adjust to it along the way.