From LAFC to RSL, Cristian Arango finds home and ambition in Utah


Real Salt Lake forward Chicho Arango is introduced to his family at halftime of a game June 10 at America First Field in Sandy, Utah. (Rob Gray – USA Today Sports)

In just six months, Cristian “Chicho” Arango traveled from California to Mexico, then to Colombia and finally to Utah. Relocating can be challenging, especially for a professional soccer player trying to adapt to new coaches, ideologies and cities. The human aspect behind the scenes often remains hidden.

Arango joined Major League Soccer in 2021 and made a significant impact. Unless you’ve followed Colombian football closely, you might not have been familiar with his style of play and personality. He’s a born goalscorer, hard worker and incredibly humble.

The only stand out thing about him is his style and choice of clothes.

But he was quick to show MLS who he was, scoring 14 goals in 17 games en route to Newcomer of the Year. And during those first six months he was in Los Angeles, away from his family and his newborn daughter.

The next season, when his loved ones finally joined him, he was integral to LAFC’s success in winning the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield. He quickly became a favorite, not just for Black and Gold fans but across the league. Because of this, his departure from LAFC came as a complete surprise due to roster-building complications.

He wanted and deserved the Designated Player title, but LAFC couldn’t give it to him. So he went to CF Pachuca of Liga MX. The brief stint was mostly uneventful, ending with just five goals in 13 games. Lack of continuity caused this chapter to end abruptly.

After the season ended, he returned to Medellín (Colombia) to train, have training sessions with 2014 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot winner James Rodríguez and wait for the right opportunity. There was interest from other league MX teams and MLS clubs. Ultimately, he and his agent reached a record-breaking deal with Real Salt Lake, securing the DP deal he wanted.

But why RSL?

It was simple: the mentality and the desire of the club to build a team that wins the championship. Looking at RSL’s recent development and squad-building, their ambitions are no secret.

They are just two wins away from winning the US Open Cup. A semifinal game against the Houston Dynamo is scheduled for August. There is also the upcoming League Cup which is a perfect test and a chance to build further.

The ultimate goal, of course, is winning the MLS Cup and current form suggests positive momentum for Salt Lake, which Arango acknowledges.

“The talent, the potential and the work ethic are there. Now it’s up to us to mentally convince ourselves that we can achieve what we want,” Arango told Emox News. “It’s a great team that shows very important qualities.”

June 10, 2023; Sandy, Utah, United States; Real Salt Lake forward Chicho Arango’s new player was unveiled at halftime in a game against New York City FC at America First Field. Credit required: Rob Gray – USA TODAY Sports

RSL are also counting on the influence of Nelson Palacio, another new signing from Colombia. The two are four Colombian players in the squad alongside Brayan Vera and Andrés Gómez.

For Arango, this is a meaningful distinction.

“It’s important to have this Latin American company and culture on this team. We’re already getting to know each other,” he explained. “Let’s hope the chemistry we have off the field carries over into the game so we can achieve great things.”

Expect lots of dancing at the goal celebrations. But not only does it create that atmosphere in the dressing room, it also opens up a space for players to grow and develop. “Chicho” is the oldest in the group of Colombians, but he’s not the type of leader who gives orders.

That’s not how he navigates anyway.

Instead, he will draw on his experiences to hopefully teach others and ultimately continue to learn himself.

His training sessions with Rodriguez in Colombia before his move to RSL laid the foundation for this.

“He’s not only a great person to train with, but also to spend time with and talk to,” Arango said. “I admire him a lot. It’s never a bad time to learn from someone like him who’s been so successful in his life.’ Make a career. The positive energy can be contagious.”

Utah is far from Medellin. The differences outweigh the similarities. However, in this contrast lies a sense of peace and love. The calm comes from the fact that Arango has finally settled down with his family as they just moved into their new house a few days ago. He firmly believes he’s in Salt Lake City for a reason, and told “Gracias a Dios” that he chose that fate.

Although he’s only been in Utah for a short time, he’s already comfortable.

“When I got here in Salt Lake, I got a hug that I honestly didn’t expect,” Arango told Emox News. “It was incredible how they welcomed me and my family and that motivates me to give my all. It’s a fan base that deserves my full respect and dedication on the pitch.”

Saturday is the much-anticipated moment when he will make his debut against Orlando City home in Sandy, Utah. When asked about his pre-game feelings, he didn’t hesitate and said, “Win.” During his first MLS stint, he scored 35 goals in 58 games. As a more mature and experienced player, he expects the sequel to be remarkable.

He knows what this moment means, but he suspects that the next game might mean something.

“It was always the second game,” Arango said. “In Envigado I scored in my second game. In Los Angeles and Portugal too.”

He laughed and then thought even further back.

“In Valencia it was my very first game in which I scored a goal. Let’s try to repeat that here.”

While the goals are coming, there is another important milestone for him. Arango is just nine goals away from reaching 100 goals as a pro. His goal for this year is to achieve that feat. When playfully asked if it would only take him four games to reach the milestone, he chuckled but seemed intrigued by the idea.

“I’m close.”

As if he needed more encouragement to do what he’s been doing his whole life.

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