Voices: Joseph Lowery

What 2022 could mean for LAFC & Colombia striker Cristian Arango

Cristian Arango LAFC

LAFC are entering uncharted territory.

After missing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history, they're starting a new season without Bob Bradley as their manager for the first time. Steve Cherundolo will be in charge of leading and designing much of LAFC’s on-field product. On top of the coaching change, LAFC are also in the middle of retooling their roster.

Over the last few weeks, John Thorrington and company transferred Eduard Atuesta to Palmeiras in Brazil, lost Tristan Blackmon in the Expansion Draft and traded Bryce Duke to Inter Miami, all while adding Franco Escobar and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. The Black & Gold are almost certainly not done making moves, either.

Between the managerial and roster shifts, there are some pretty significant unknowns surrounding LAFC right now. One thing, though, that isn't an unknown is Cristian Arango’s goalscoring ability. Arango, who took home the 2021 MLS Newcomer of the Year award, arrived in Los Angeles in August and was incredibly productive for LAFC in 2021. In his 1,400 minutes, the Colombian international scored 14 goals and gave his new team a much-needed scoring boost. Arango also made his international debut for Colombia in a World Cup Qualifier against Paraguay on Nov. 16.

During the offseason, we’ve been using Second Spectrum’s data to look at some MLS players who could be in for a huge year in 2022 — and who could even feature at the World Cup. So far we’ve analyzed Miles Robinson, Julian Araujo, and Adam Buksa. This week? It’s time to dive into Arango.

What do the numbers say about the 26-year-old striker? And what could 2022 mean for him? Let’s talk about it.

Statistical strengths and weaknesses

While Arango’s goalscoring numbers from 2021 were inflated by his five converted penalty kicks, his underlying shooting numbers still look pretty darn good. Up front, it’s important to note the sample size on Arango in MLS is smaller than any of the other players we’ve looked at over the offseason. Drawing hard and fast conclusion from 1,400 minutes is probably unwise, but we can still learn some things about Arango’s playing style, his tendencies, and his potential.

Okay, back to the shooting numbers. When you filter out penalty kicks and dead balls, Arango’s numbers check a lot of the boxes you want a goalscoring No. 9’s numbers to check. Among forwards with at least 10 open play shots last season, Arango ranked in the 86th percentile in goals per 90 minutes, the 92nd percentile in xG per 90 and the 90th percentile in shots per 90.

Arango isn’t the fastest player (his top sustained speed of 8.7 meters per second puts him in 41st among forwards), but he found a lot of good scoring positions last season. Especially when LAFC attacked in transition or attacked vertically in possession, Arango moved into space and scored goals.

Only two players, Buksa and Josef Martinez, generated more xG per 90 minutes in the counter-attacking phase last season than Arango. And among regular starters, Chicharito was the only striker who generated more xG per 90 in the high regain phase, which Second Spectrum defines as counter attacks that start in the attacking half.

Buksa, Josef, Chicharito…if you’re Arango, that’s not bad statical company.

Arango likes to operate in the box, but he’s also prone to shoot from a little deeper. He doesn’t rack up shots inside the six-yard box like Buksa or Chicharito and his 0.24 shots per 90 minutes from that zone put him 30th among forwards in MLS last season. The Colombian’s average shot distance of 14.3 meters landed him in the 50th percentile among forwards and indicates that he’s happy to shoot from distance.

Looking past his shot data, Arango is a physical player. Though he’s only 5-foot-10, he's willing to hold the ball up and play with his back to goal. Arango loves to shield the ball with his body, draw a couple of defenders and then find a teammate.

In 2021, he averaged 3.2 attempted dribbles per 90 minutes, which put him ninth among forwards who featured regularly in MLS last season. Arango’s 2.24 successful dribbles per 90 minutes were 14th in the league among forwards who featured regularly in 2021. He uses his frame to control the ball, turn and move play forward, which you can see in this clip. The shot is poor, but the hold-up play and the turn are both excellent.

Defensively, Arango is a capable presser and can cover ground, but he can continue to improve his play against the ball. Arango’s 35.5% pressing efficiency rate last season scored him in the 60th percentile among forwards and his distance covered while pressing per 90 minutes scored him in the 65th percentile.

Still, Arango’s primary responsibility isn’t to press, it’s to score goals – and he did that better than almost everyone else in MLS last year. According to data analyst Paul Harvey, Arango’s data profile looks a lot like Torino’s Andrea Belotti, Inter’s Lautaro Martinez and NYCFC’s Taty Castellanos. Those are three players who, like Arango, are no strangers to scoring goals.

What 2022 means for Arango

While the players and system around him at LAFC won’t be the same as they were for the second half of last season, Arango’s physicality and goalscoring should make him a successful cog in Cherundolo’s team in 2022. With real midfield talent behind him and attackers like Carlos Vela and Brian Rodriguez playing alongside him in the frontline, Arango could be in for another big year in MLS.

There will be plenty of storylines to monitor with Arango at club level, but things get even more interesting on the international stage.

After earning his first cap for Colombia in their most recent World Cup Qualifier, Arango has a chance to factor into Reinaldo Rueda’s squad for even more important games in 2022. Now, Atalanta’s Luis Muriel and Duván Zapata along with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Rafael Santos Borré Maury and a couple of other talented strikers will make it extremely difficult for Arango to earn consistent minutes for Colombia.

That said, he is clearly in Rueda’s plans – at least on some level. Arango was called up to Colombia’s squad for their friendly against Honduras on Sunday. The roster is mostly composed of domestic players, but Arango’s inclusion is a good sign for his international hopes ahead of their four remaining World Cup Qualifiers.

If all of the pieces fall into place like they did for him with LAFC during the last few months of last season, 2022 could see Arango help LAFC navigate uncharted waters while he plays a part in Colombia’s international fixtures.