Voices: Joseph Lowery

What 2022 could mean for LA Galaxy & Mexico defender Julian Araujo

2021 was a big year for a lot of people, but it was a really big year for Julian Araujo.

After Greg Vanney took over for Guillermo Barros Schelotto as head coach of the LA Galaxy, the 20-year-old played his first full professional season as an out-and-out right back. Oh, and in the midst of that season, he decided his international soccer allegiance by filing a one-time switch and joining Mexico's national team. After the Galaxy’s MLS season ended, the 2021 MLS All-Star made his debut for El Tri in an international friendly against Chile in December.

As I said, it’s been a big year for Araujo.

With 2022 just around the corner, we’re using Second Spectrum’s data to examine several MLS players who could be due for a huge year – and who could even feature at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Last week, we looked at Atlanta United and USA center back Miles Robinson. This week? It’s Araujo time.

What do the numbers say about Araujo? And what might 2022 mean for him? Let’s talk about it.

Statistical strengths and weaknesses

When you dig through the Second Spectrum data on Araujo, the first thing that stands out about him is his passing. Starting for a possession-oriented team like Vanney’s Galaxy, Araujo played a bunch of passes in 2021 – he attempted 1,522 passes, which was 22nd in all of MLS and fifth among fullbacks and wingbacks. But to borrow a thought from my column last week, attempting a lot of passes isn’t nearly as valuable as doing valuable things with those passes.

Never fear: Araujo does some extremely valuable things with his passes.

The California native had just over four expected assists last year, which put him in the 92nd percentile among all players according to Second Spectrum’s model. That 4 xA total puts him fifth among all fullbacks and wingbacks in MLS, only behind Julian Gressel, Brooks Lennon, Aaron Herrera and Daniel Lovitz. That’s some elite shot-creating company for Araujo.

On a per-90-minute basis, Araujo’s xA number takes a bit of a hit, but he was still in the 91st percentile among fullbacks and wingbacks with 0.12 xA per 90. It’s not all about the quantity of shot-creating passes for the young right back – it’s about quality, too. Araujo’s teammates averaged 0.13 xG on shots created by Araujo, which puts his key passes in the 84th percentile among fullbacks and wingbacks in terms of quality.

Zooming out a bit, Araujo put up some impressive numbers in a pair of other passing categories as well. He played the third-most passes of any outside defender to teammates between the lines in 2021, averaging 2.5 per 90 minutes.

He also completed the third-most through balls among fullbacks and wingbacks last year, just behind Gressel and Lovitz.

Passing is a big part of Araujo’s game (and one that should continue to improve in future seasons), but it’s certainly not the only reason he’s such a talent. Another huge piece of Araujo’s value is his speed: In 2021, the Mexican international was the 38th fastest player recorded in MLS with a top sustained speed of 9.8 meters per second. Araujo used that speed early and often last year, registering more sprints than any other MLS player in 2021.

Araujo has speed in spades but isn’t a reliable ball progresser on the dribble just yet. He was in the 50th percentile among fullbacks and wingbacks in average defenders bypassed per touch and in the 59th percentile in average forward distance traveled per touch. Over the next couple of years, it will be fascinating to see if Araujo starts to drive into open space afforded to him by opposing defenses. If he does, he’ll be hard to stop.

One other quick note on Araujo: he isn’t a dominant aerial presence. He loves to defend – and told The Athletic as much in an interview earlier this year – but at 5-foot-10, he may never be all that strong in the air. Still, he put up solid success percentages in offensive and defensive aerial duels. In 2021, Araujo ranked in the 66th percentile for offensive aerial duel win percentage and in the 68th for defensive aerial duel win percentage.

Just like last week, if you got tired of reading somewhere up above, don’t worry. I’ve got a TL;DR for you that summarizes Araujo’s current statistical profile:

  • Fast
  • Effective right back for a possession team
  • Good shot creator (quality and quantity)
  • Not a regular threat to drive forward on the dribble

According to data analyst Paul Harvey, who you should follow on Twitter, Araujo’s data profile looks similar to Tottenham’s Emerson and Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Now, that doesn’t mean Araujo will reach that top level, but it does mean he does similar things to those two players.

What 2022 means for Julian Araujo

In MLS, Araujo and LA will have the chance to improve on their eighth-place finish in the Western Conference from this past season. Vanney will use this offseason to further shape the Galaxy’s roster into one he believes can execute his possession-based tactical approach. With a handful of new players added to the mix (and some of last year’s new signings growing into their roles), 2022 is a decisive year for the Galaxy.

Araujo, for his part, will undoubtedly be a big part of their plans – at least for as long as he’s in LA. Although he’s been linked to Tottenham and Juventus in the past, there hasn’t been much recent transfer buzz surrounding Araujo. Still, with offensive numbers like the ones he put up last season and with a growing international profile, a move to a strong European club shouldn’t be out of the question.

Julian Araujo LA Galaxy 1

Internationally, there is a path into Tata Martino’s first-choice roster in 2022. Araujo impressed during his lone appearance for Mexico in 2021 and given the fact right back is a weak point in Martino’s player pool, Araujo could make a real push for minutes next year. Luis ‘Chaka’ Rodríguez, Jorge Sánchez and Julio César Domínguez have all played minutes at right back for Mexico in World Cup Qualifying – and there is a sense among both media and Martino that Mexico’s backline hasn’t reached its final form.

"Evidently our objective and challenge is to find a defense that lives up to how we attack,” Martino said, looking back on Mexico’s recent results after the 2-2 draw with Chile on December 8.

With his speed, willingness to defend and creative passing ability, Araujo could grow into an important piece of Martino’s team in 2022, just like he’s already a key part of Vanney’s team in LA. A trip to Qatar is within the realm of possibilities.