How Cristian Arango became the key to LAFC’s playoff push

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Unlike many 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.”

Divine intervention might prove to be LAFC’s best hope. Heading into Tuesday’s home match with the Western Conference-leading Seattle Sounders, LAFC was two places and three points out of the seventh and final playoff spot with three games left. A loss in any of those games could keep LAFC out of the postseason for the first time in the team’s four-year history.

But the fact LAFC has any chance at all is a credit to Arango’s intervention; since arriving from Colombia’s Millonarios in early August, he has scored a team-high 12 goals in 14 games, including six in the last 10 days.

LAFC is 5-1-2 when he scores and 6-11-6 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.

“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.”

Arango, 26, 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 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.”

However his sister does have one thing her brother wants: the No. 10. That’s the number Pelé, Maradona, Kaká 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 Mexican star Carlos Vela, who broke the MLS single-season scoring record in 2019 but has started just 19 games since. Arango’s next two favorite numbers — 7, worn by midfielder Latif 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.”

He and Vela have played just twice together this season, so if Vela leaves this winter, as expected, would Arango take his number as well as his position?

“Well,” he answered modestly with a smile, “let’s hope he stays with us for as long as possible.”

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