Cristian “Chicho” Arango had a tough act to follow.
Just days before the 28-year-old was scheduled to make his debut for Real Salt Lake, another high-level goalscorer was dominating in Utah by putting five strikes past the goalkeeper. That’s an impressive accomplishment at any level, but this player made it look easy, even as Arango watched from the sidelines.
That goalscorer was Arango’s son.
While the senior Arango didn’t manage five goals in his return to Major League Soccer, he scored once and added an immediate boost to Pablo Mastroeni’s starting lineup in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Orlando City SC. The Colombian international striker, who joined RSL in the recently-opened Secondary Transfer Window for a reported club-record fee, has picked up right where he left off in MLS.
After making his debut for LAFC midway through 2021, Arango quickly became known as an elite goalscorer in MLS. He scored 14 goals in 1400 minutes for LAFC in 2021, finishing in the 94th percentile in non-penalty goals per 90 minutes and the 88th in non-penalty xG per 90 among MLS forwards, according to FBref. He added 16 goals in just over 2,300 minutes in 2022, finishing in the 82nd percentile in non-penalty goals per 90 and the 95th in non-penalty xG per 90 among MLS forwards.
One short stint with Pachuca in Liga MX later, and the MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield winner is back in MLS, this time with RSL. Here’s what makes the Designated Player so special, and how he’ll impact his new Western Conference team.
As Pablo Ruiz prepares to take a free kick from the right side of the field, Arango’s head is up. He’s waiting for just the right time to start his run. A moment before Ruiz connects with the ball, Chicho begins to make his move, curling towards the edge of the six-yard box and finding space behind a pair of Orlando defenders. He pushes off the ground with his left foot, explodes forward and meets the ball in the air, powering a header past Pedro Gallese to give RSL a 1-0 lead.
The timing, the movement and the strong finish shown above are all major themes of Arango’s game. At this point in his career, the veteran striker is very well-rounded. He has the strength and skill to contribute in virtually every phase of the game, holding off defenders and combining with teammates to create opportunities in the final third before moving into the box to find shots.
During his time with LAFC, Arango didn’t find himself terribly involved in buildup or possession deeper downfield. He finished in the 29th percentile or lower in both 2021 and 2022 for passes attempted among MLS forwards, according to FBref. That’s no problem for RSL, who prefer to get to the final third via direct passes. However, Arango ended those seasons much higher in metrics like key passes and passes into the final third, indicating his involvement in more advanced attacking sequences.
At times, Arango can be a little too involved in those sequences, firing off shots on goal before the play has finished developing.
In 2021, his shots came from an average distance of 18.5 yards from goal, which was more than seven yards further than the most selective striker in MLS that year (Brian White, 11 yards). In 2022, that number dropped to 18 yards but still trailed the leaders (Gyasi Zardes & Adam Buksa with 10.5 yards) by more than seven yards. That lack of discipline is something Mastreoni will want to keep an eye on in Salt Lake.
Arango doesn’t just hit and hope, though – he takes a lot of great shots, too. His tenacity in the box, where he’s constantly hunting for a sliver of green grass to connect with the ball before slamming it into the back of the net, is matched by only a handful of other strikers from around MLS.
Arango is aggressive, yet patient when he can sense that an opportunity could be coming his way near the opposing goal. Just like every top striker around the world, he knows how to spot and exploit space. Sometimes, that’s done by making a bursting run inside the 18. Other times, like on this Arango goal, it’s done by simply finding a spot to camp out between two defenders and waiting for a chance to strike.
Between his past success with LAFC and a hot start to life with RSL, we should expect big things from Arango in 2023. One of the league’s elite strikers is back, folks.
The answer to that question is simple: really, really well.
Given Mastroeni’s appreciation for a two-forward front in a 4-4-2 shape, we’ll see a lot of Arango forcing opposing defenders backwards while his strike partner – on Saturday, it was Damir Kreilach – helps with possession in deeper areas. Further upfield, Arango will have the chance to get on the end of clever passes from RSL’s two creative wingers: in Matchday 24 it was Diego Luna and Jefferson Savarino.
That front four has the potential to work very, very well together throughout the rest of this season, with…
- Arango’s movement and scoring threat
- Kreilach’s playmaking ability and dangerous accent runs
- Luna’s pure creativity and vision
- Savarino’s mixture of goal threat and passing
Toss in some minutes from talented 20-year-old Colombian attacker Andrés Gómez, with Anderson Julio and Danny Musovski offering more depth, and you have one of the most talented attacking groups in MLS.
Especially in Mastreoni’s practical attacking approach that often appears to be dictated mostly by his players, adding a Best XI-caliber striker will benefit the rest of RSL’s starting lineup. Opposing defenders will have to pay special attention to Arango’s sharp movement in transition, which will create larger pockets of space for his teammates to exploit in other parts of the field.
In particular, Luna, who is already in the 99th percentile for shot-creating actions and expected assists per 90 among attacking midfielders and wingers in MLS this year, could take his game to even greater heights with Arango in the lineup. Now with a savvy, well-rounded striker in the team, Luna has an outlet in both transition and possession. He can play curved balls from the left halfspace into Arango or Kreilach, allowing those two players to overload opposing center backs and find a shot.
Defensively, Arango won’t have any trouble leading the line in RSL’s preferred 4-4-2 mid-block shape. He’s an above-average defender and will be willing to help his new team win the ball back in their own half before switching gears to spearhead attacking moves.
As Orlando City saw first-hand over the weekend, Arango is plug and play for Mastroeni.
Can someone say “Audi MLS Cup Playoffs home team?”
Real Salt Lake are already on track to host a postseason game in the fall at America First Field. They’re currently fourth in the Western Conference and they’re also fourth based on points per game (1.5).
Now, they have over-performed so far this year. Based on xG differential, RSL (-0.05 per 90 minutes, according to FBref) are just the seventh-best team in the West at this point in the year. Given Arango has only featured once for them so far, though, we should expect that negative xGD to turn positive over the next several games. RSL completely controlled the game against Orlando, creating more and better chances than the Lions.
Now, it’s easy to be excited by new, shiny things, and it’s tempting to anoint Real Salt Lake as one of the league’s top teams after a couple of statement transfers and a blowout win. I’ll be honest, though: I think it’s possible that RSL, as long as they stay healthy, really are one of the best teams in MLS with Arango in the frontline.
And even if they don’t become an overnight trophy contender, there’s no denying RSL have started to close the talent gap on the top teams in the Western Conference. The Claret-and-Cobalt have had this identity as a hard-working, tough, defensively stout team. But in recent years, they’ve lacked the elite attacking talent to make consistent pushes into the top half of the West’s playoff bracket. While there’s still room for a few more pieces to strengthen the team, they now have some of the best pieces in the entire league.
Over time, since the team’s new ownership group was introduced at the start of 2022, Real Salt Lake have started to spend and identify genuine difference-makers in MLS. That represents a big change in this league, one that could see Arango and RSL make some real waves during the rest of this season and beyond.