Cristian Arango has become LAFC’s surprise MVP

LAFC’s roster includes a five-time Champions League winner, a former league MVP, a U.S. national team regular and the captain of the last team to win the European Championship. Yet its leading scorer over the last 12 months is a relatively unknown Colombian with just 10 minutes of international experience.

In fact, Cristian Arango is so anonymous even his teammates don’t always recognize his name. When Kellyn Acosta was asked about Arango this week, he drew a blank until someone repeated the question using Arango’s nickname.

“Oh, Chicho!” he said. “A lot of people don’t call him Cristian Arango. It sounds so weird sometimes.”

Not to opponents, who have seen Chicho — er, Arango — score 26 goals and hand out seven assists in his last 40 games; LAFC has lost just nine of them. No player in MLS has scored more often over that span. So when opponents focus on Carlos Vela, the most prolific single-season goal scorer in MLS history, or Gareth Bale, once soccer’s most expensive transfer, Arango steps up to punish them.

“He’s a star too,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “And he’s been very effective.”

So effective that LAFC (18-5-3 and with just two losses mid-May) is the only MLS team that has already clinched a playoff berth. With a road win over second-place Austin on Friday, it could expand its lead in the Western Conference standings to a whopping 12 points with seven games left, putting a second Supporters’ Shield in four seasons well within reach.

Another win would also move LAFC to within three of matching the league’s modern-era record of 22 victories in a season and leave it 13 points shy of the record for points in a season, a mark LAFC first broke in 2019.

“Its form, its structure, its way of working has led LAFC to where it is today,” Arango said in Spanish. “It has earned respect in the league.”

So has Arango, 27, who played for six teams in three countries before becoming a fixture with Colombia’s Millionarios in 2019, scoring 21 times over parts of three seasons. He eclipsed that number in 13 months with LAFC, scoring 14 times after joining LAFC last August to earn MLS newcomer of the year honors.

But that wasn’t enough to get the team to the playoffs. So Cherundolo, who replaced Bob Bradley as coach last winter, asked Arango to track back and help defensively, which is a little like asking Clayton Kershaw to work on his bunting or Matthew Stafford to practice his tackling. Yet Arango took the suggestion seriously and after making four of his first six appearances off the bench, he’s started 13 of LAFC’s last 14 regular-season games, scoring 10 of his team-leading 12 goals.

LAFC forward Daniel Musovski celebrates his goal with Cristian Arango.

LAFC forward Daniel Musovski, left, celebrates his goal with Cristian Arango against FC Dallas on June 29 at Banc of California Stadium.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

“He understood what we asked for him to change in his game and he’s made those adjustments and has continued to score,” Cherundolo said. “So now he is not only effective for himself personally with scoring goals but also for the team with his defensive work and setting up other players and his movements and occupying certain spaces we asked him to occupy.”

That commitment to a team-first approach wasn’t enough to keep Arango’s name out of the transfer rumors this summer, but those were rumors to which he paid little attention.

“I want to be a champion with this club,” he said. “I am focused on LAFC. I want to continue scoring goals. And for now, that’s where my head is.”

One reason for that is the transition from Colombia’s first division to MLS was easier than he anticipated.

“It was super special to be able to adapt quickly,” he said. “The league has grown quite a bit. It is a very competitive league. Colombia is a little more tactical. Football here is more intense, more physical. That’s why I like the league here.”

So does his wife, Tatiana, and the couple’s three children.

“Everyone is really happy here,” he said. “Hopefully it will be what God wants.”

God was unavailable for comment. But Acosta said keeping Arango around is what he wants — even if he sometimes has to be reminded of the name on his teammate’s passport.

“Chicho, he’s great. On and off the field,” he said. “The guy works hard and he scores goals. And he’s an important player for us.

“I’m hoping that he continues on this hot form.”

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