‘This is what we’re working for’: Cristian Arango is the key to LAFC’s playoff push

LAFC's Cristian Arango controls the ball during a game
LAFC’s Cristian Arango controls the ball during a game against Real Salt Lake at Banc of California Stadium on Sept. 12 in Los Angeles.
(Shaun Clark / Getty Images)

Unlike many foreign-born soccer players, Cristian Arango is familiar with the concept of playoffs. Three times in his five seasons in Colombia’s first division, Arango played for a club that qualified for the league’s postseason tournament.

And success, he found, wasn’t always determined by which team had the best players.

“It’s the mentality,” said Arango, who is battling long odds to get LAFC to the MLS postseason this fall. “This is what we’ve been working for. God is in charge of our destiny, but this is what we’re working for.”

LAFC might not need divine intervention if it continues to play as it did Tuesday, when Arango’s 13th goal of the season followed first-half scores from Brian Rodríguez and Latif Blessing in a 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders (17-8-7). The victory extended the team’s unbeaten streak to a season-high five games and lifted LAFC (12-12-8) into a playoff spot with two regular-season games remaining. And the team got more good news when former MVP Carlos Vela, who has been battling a quadriceps injury, came on in the 78th minute, making his first appearance since Aug. 21.


For the record:

12:49 a.m. Oct. 27, 2021A previous version of this story said LAFC was among the Western Conference’s top seven teams only twice in the last three months. The team was among the top seven only twice in the last two months.

The top seven teams in the 13-team Western Conference qualify for the postseason and LAFC is now in the top seven for just the second time in the last two months. But the fact LAFC has any chance at all is a credit to Arango’s game-changing presence: Since he arrived from Colombia’s Millonarios in early August, LAFC has gone 6-1-2 when he scores and 0-5-1 when he doesn’t.

“I don’t think it’s because of me,” Arango, who is almost as humble as he is talented, said in Spanish. “It’s because of every one of my teammates who welcomed me and me adapting to them.

“My goals are not the product of my personality or the way I play. It’s thanks to my teammates who make a play and give me the ball so I can finish. It is a team, not an individual sport.”

Maybe. But Arango is the individual who does the most to make the team better.

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“He’s never satisfied. He just keeps pushing,” defender Sebastien Ibeagha said. “He’s playing tremendously well, but he’s still not settled with the way he’s playing. And he wants to help the team in any way.”

Rodríguez got the scoring started in the 21st minute Tuesday, running on to a through ball from Raheem Edwards in the box, then beating Seattle keeper Stefan Frei for his third goal of the season. Blessing doubled the lead in first-half stoppage time, one-timing in a pass from Kim Moon-Hwan. The Korean made good use of a screen from Arango, who got his second MLS assist on the goal.

Arango then put the game away six minutes into the second half, one-hopping in a right-footed shot from well outside the penalty area. The 13 goals in 15 games is among the fastest starts to an MLS career in league history and it leaves Arango just a goal shy of matching the club’s rookie record of 14 set by Vela in his first season in 2018.

Vela played 28 games that year; Arango has 15 appearances this season.

Jamal Blackman, who was aided by a swarming defense, stopped five shots in goal Tuesday for his first MLS shutout.

“It’s a game where we made it hard on the other team, which is certainly one of the things that you want to do in important games,” coach Bob Bradley said.

“For me it’s the collective effort… In the moments where we slipped a little bit, Jamal came through.”

So, once again, did Arango, 26, who came to MLS from one of Colombia’s most iconic teams, having been recruited by former Colombian international Juan Pablo Ángel, a technical assistant and chief scout who has helped identify and sign most of the eight South Americans on LAFC’s roster.

The draw snapped LAFC’s modest two-game winning streak but it also cost the team a crucial two points in the Western Conference standings.

Oct. 23, 2021

The transfer cost the team a $2.5-million transfer fee. For Arango, who had 22 goals and six assists in 58 appearances with Millonarios, the MLS spotlight is not only welcome now but, since it’s also seen in Europe, is one that could prove even more helpful in the future.

“It’s a league that’s evolving well and is attractive for players. It’s getting better day by day,” said Arango, who played two seasons with Aves and Tondela in Portugal and would like to return to the continent some day.

“Everything with patience and work. If it comes, I would welcome it,” he said. “I’m not looking for it. I’ll let my work in the present speak for itself.”

Arango isn’t the only member of his family who has distinguished himself in sports. Sister Cindy, 20, is a talented shooting guard who plays basketball for Medellín in Colombia’s Liga Superior.

“In Colombia there’s no professional basketball league for women so she’s at the highest category there,” Arango said. “I never thought about [basketball]. Since I was a boy soccer has always been my passion.”

LAFC's Cristian Arango is defended by Seattle Sounders defender Yeimar Gomez.
LAFC’s Cristian Arango, center, is defended by Seattle Sounders defender Yeimar Gomez during the first half Tuesday at Banc of California Stadium.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

However his sister does have one thing her brother wants: the No. 10. That’s the number Pele, Maradona, Kaka and Ronaldinho wore and the one Lionel Messi used to wear. It’s the jersey that, in soccer, goes to the team’s star player and it’s the one Arango wore in Bogotá with Millonarios.

With LAFC the number belongs to Vela. Arango’s next two favorite numbers — 7, worn by Blessing and 9, which belonged to forward Diego Rossi — were also unavailable when he arrived. So he took No. 29.

“It’s my son’s birth date,” he said. “I don’t dislike it. I wear it with pride.”

And success.

He hasn’t closed the deal yet though. LAFC and Arango will continue their late playoff push next Tuesday at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are even with LAFC on 44 points but trail in the standings on the first tiebreak, total wins. They finish the regular season Nov. 7 against the Rapids in Colorado.