At age 20, and just nine minutes into his professional soccer career, Chula Vista native Paul Arriola, controlled the ball with his left foot, wound up from outside the box and scored a goal for the Club Tijuana Xolos against legendary Club America.
In his second match he scored again, catapulting him onto the U.S. under-23 team and into an elite group of young American soccer players to watch.
In between battling veteran Mexican league stars and the best young players in the world, Arriola takes classes at Southwestern College.
Former Southwestern College men’s soccer star Adrian Ramos recently joined the Xolos second division team. He is glad to have a fellow fútbol pro working on a degree, he said.
“I think Arriola is a very smart guy enrolling in school again,” said Ramos. “You never know when things can go downhill, so having that plan B is a great idea.”
Both Xolos players find themselves completing homework during their down time at away matches throughout Mexico; usually in their hotel room before and after matches.
Although Arriola said he enjoys school, his main focus is soccer.
“As important as school is, right now I have a career,” he said. “At the moment my career can take me a lot further than a couple of credits.”
Arriola recently received momentous news. Team USA’s U-23 team invited him and 22 other players to participate in Olympic preparation, highlighting Arriola as one of USA’s foremost soccer prospects. He started at midfield for the second Olympic qualifier game against Colombia, which the USA lost 2-1.
“The plan for me was to always go professional, that was my dream,” said Arriola.
After his outstanding tenure at Mater Dei High School, he rejected a full-ride scholarship to UCLA for a chance at a professional contract.
Arriola landed a spot on the roster of an elite professional team located 10 miles away from Chula Vista. Club Tijuana, a team competing in Mexico’s premier soccer league, signed Arriola in 2013 to its under-20 team. Arriola said he did not realize the magnitude of the signing.
“The club published it as if it were a big signing,” said Arriola. “They announced it everywhere. They put me in pamphlets. It was a lot of pressure, but I guess I didn’t see it as pressure because I was just supposed to be with the U-20s.”
After just one month of training with the U-20 team, he was moved up to play for the Xolos first division team. Arriola said his early success gave him confidence.
“I think that was a good sign of what was to come in the season,” he said. “Looking back, I think me scoring in my debut was probably the best thing that could have happened to me and the best sign from God that it was going to be a good season.”
He built on his impressive first game and made an immediate impact before front office shake-ups soured his young professional career. Team struggles led to five coaching changes in the three years he has been on the Xolos.
Arriola said it was difficult to adjust to the stream of new coaches and his confidence waned. With each coach, Arriola got less playing time. He said the uncertainty has tested his resolve.
“I was put on the spot right away and I did well,” he said. “I had really early success, but sometimes that’s not the best for a player as far as growing.”
During this tumultuous time, Arriola realized education could add some much needed stability. He decided to enroll at Southwestern College in 2015 to take online classes.
“I knew I needed to continue studying,” he said. “It wasn’t like people were saying that I needed to continue school. I wanted to continue.”
The now 21-year-old plans to major in business management.
“A soccer career is very short,” he said. “God forbid anything happen to me on the field. I would have a backup plan and I wouldn’t let life take me on another rollercoaster ride. School gives me a feeling that I’m working toward something along with playing soccer.”
Average salary for a first team player Mexico’s Liga MX is $200,000, but the typical career spans, on average, seven or eight years.
Southwestern College student Jovan Holmes, 21, majoring in public interest law, is a friend of Paul who has observed first-hand his entry into the hyper-competitive world of professional sports.
“I think what he’s learned from being a professional soccer player is that when you reach a certain level there’s always a next level,” said Holmes. “You always have to be better, you always have to be faster and he understands that. He’s always willing to go the extra mile.”
Arriola said signing a professional contract impacted him on and off the field. Money, recognition and fame were unfamiliar issues he had to wrestle with. Jovan said that throughout the almost overnight avalanche of success, Arriola was unchanged.
“What stands out to me about Paul is that he is a very humble person,” he said. “He has always been humble and stayed humble.”
Arriola attributed his modest personality to his parents.
“Luckily, I was raised in a very humble environment, not with a lot of money,” he said. “My family always supported me in everything I did.”
Holmes said Arriola always works to shore up deficiencies.
“No matter which angle he takes, if he realizes he has a weak point somewhere he goes ahead and practices,” he said. “He doesn’t stop until he feels comfortable and where he wants to be.”
Arriola said he grows as a person each day.
“So far I have learned a lot,” he said. “Time management and prioritizing what I need in my life are going to help me succeed in the future.”