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Paul Arriola trying to strike balance between Premier League hopes and MLS realities

Paul Arriola keeps possession against Manchester City in FA Cup match Feb. 10 in Wales. (Rebecca Naden/Reuters)

Paul Arriola’s mad dash into European club soccer almost a month ago went like this: fly overnight to London, take coronavirus and fitness tests, practice two days with second-division Swansea City, debut in a lopsided match against probably the best club in the world, then dive into a pitched battle for promotion to the Premier League.

“It was hectic,” he said in an interview Friday, “and it’s still in a way hectic.”

Arriola’s whirlwind fulfilled a long-standing wish of playing overseas. He joined Swansea City on a short-term loan from D.C. United, a move facilitated by the teams having common investors.

“Even though I would’ve felt okay going through my career without ever playing in Europe, it’s nice to be here getting exposure and getting into games,” Arriola said. “And the way the team is going is super valuable to me, regardless of what the future holds.”

Right away, he made appearances as a substitute in an FA Cup loss to Premier League titan Manchester City and a league victory against Nottingham Forest.

After remaining on the bench for two matches, Arriola entered in the 81st minute of a 3-1 defeat against Bristol City on Saturday.

“By no means am I content just to be here. I want to play,” he said. “I want to help the team get promoted. I want to play a part in it. It’s a matter of where and when and how and what I do with the opportunities.”

Arriola, 26, is in a situation unique to soccer. Loans often include an option for the receiving club to purchase the player’s contract when the temporary gig ends. The player understands quality performances could lead to a permanent move.

That, however, was not part of this loan. Rather, it was done to add depth for Swansea City down the stretch and provide a competitive environment for Arriola during the MLS offseason and preseason. United will open training camp March 8 and the season April 17.

Arriola is scheduled to return to Washington in May, with the exact date hinging on Swansea City’s possible playoff schedule after its May 8 league finale. If the Swans gain promotion and if the technical staff sees a long-term future with him, a permanent transfer could materialize.

At the moment, given Arriola’s secondary role, that seems doubtful.

“It’s definitely a challenging time because you are somewhere else where you know is not forever,” he said. “You have to dive in and believe and focus on what you can control.”

The Swans are angling to return to the top flight after a three-year absence. They are among four clubs in the hunt for two automatic berths. A third slot will go to the winner of a four-team playoff.

In Swansea City’s system, Arriola’s best position is right wing back. However, Connor Roberts, a Welsh national team player, has it locked down.

Despite the dearth of minutes, Arriola said he has benefited from the experience, starting with the FA Cup encounter against Manchester City, the runaway leader in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League contender.

“At the beginning of the game and end of the game,” he said, “the guys were saying, ‘It doesn’t get much harder than this anywhere in the world.’”

The heavy load of matches on a schedule altered by the pandemic has left little time to settle into a training rhythm. Manager Steve Cooper told Arriola to be patient and be ready.

Arriola calls England’s second-tier circuit, which includes clubs from Wales, “an intense league, very aggressive, very physical. It feels like it’s going 100 miles per hour at times. You have some really good, quality teams that want to play and then you have some teams that are more old school and very direct.”

The experience was marred by an ACL injury last weekend to Jordan Morris, a teammate with both Swansea City and the U.S. national team. It occurred almost one year after Arriola tore an ACL at D.C. training camp, sidelining him for nearly the entire season.

“When he landed, he just sat there,” Arriola said. “That’s when the guys on the bench were like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’ I said, ‘Please don’t let it be his knee.’ It becomes scary, thinking about his situation. You can’t help but think, ‘What if that was me again?’ ”

The injury ended the possibility of a permanent move this summer, an option included in Morris’s loan deal.

Arriola and Morris were neighbors, living in adjacent waterfront apartment buildings. Arriola’s girlfriend, Akela Banuelos, arrived about 10 days ago and is quarantining. Except for grocery trips, he hasn’t been able to explore the city or get a sense of the public’s excitement about the push for promotion.

Before departing for Wales, Arriola said he spoke multiple times with Hernán Losada, United’s new coach. Understanding they probably will start working together in May, they talked tactics and soccer philosophy.

“It’s a weird situation,” Arriola said. “You’re on loan, but because there’s no option to buy, you’re technically a D.C. United player still, right? So how do you manage both without leaning too far one way or too far the other way?”

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