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

Jun 10, 2023;  Sandy, Utah, USA;  New player to Real Salt Lake forward Chicho Arango introduced with his family at halftime during a game against New York City FC at America First Field.  Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports
Real Salt Lake forward Chicho Arango is introduced with his family at halftime during a June 10 game 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. Moving can be challenging, especially for a professional soccer player trying to adapt to new coaches, ideologies and cities. The behind-the-scenes human aspect is often hidden from view.

Arango joined Major League Soccer in 2021 and made a significant impact. Unless you closely followed Colombian soccer, you might not have been familiar with his playing style and personality. He is a natural goal scorer, hard worker and incredibly humble.

The only flashy thing about him is his style and clothing choices.

But he quickly showed MLS exactly who he was, running it up with 14 goals in 17 games en route to winning the Newcomer of the Year award. And during those first six months, he was in Los Angeles away from his family and newborn daughter.

The next season as his loved ones eventually joined him, he was an integral part of LAFC’s run to win the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield. He quickly became a favorite, not only for Black and Gold fans, but all around the league. That’s why his departure from LAFC, due to roster construction complications, was completely unexpected.

He wanted and deserved a Designated Player tag but LAFC couldn’t give it to him. So off he went to Liga MX’s CF Pachuca. The short stint was mostly uneventful and ended with just five goals in 13 matches. Lack of continuity led to that chapter ending abruptly.

After the season finished he went back home to Medellín, Colombia, to train, getting sessions in with 2014 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot winner James Rodríguez, and wait for the right opportunity. Interest from other Liga MX teams and MLS clubs emerged. Ultimately, he and his agent reached a record-breaking agreement with Real Salt Lake, securing the DP contract he desired.

But why RSL?

It was simple: the club’s mentality and desire to build a championship-winning team. Looking at RSL’s current trajectory, and how it has built up its roster, their aspirations are no secret.

They’re two wins away from potentially winning the US Open Cup, with a semifinal match against the Houston Dynamo scheduled for August. There’s also the upcoming Leagues Cup, which is a perfect test and chance to keep building.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to win the MLS Cup, and recent form suggests positive momentum for Utah, which Arango acknowledges.

“The talent, potential and work ethic is there. It’s now up to us to mentally convince ourselves that we can accomplish what we want to,” Arango told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a great team that is showing very important qualities.”

Jun 10, 2023;  Sandy, Utah, USA;  New player to Real Salt Lake forward Chicho Arango introduced at halftime in a game against New York City FC at America First Field.  Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 10, 2023; Sandy, Utah, USA; New player to Real Salt Lake forward Chicho Arango introduced at halftime in a game against New York City FC at America First Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

RSL is also counting on the impact of Nelson Palacio, another signing from Colombia. The two join Brian Vera and Andrés Gómez as four Colombian players on the roster.

That, for Arango, is a meaningful distinction.

“It’s important to have that Latin company and culture on this team. We’re already getting to learn about each other,” he explained. “Let’s hope the chemistry that we have off the field will translate on to it so we can accomplish great things.”

Expect to see a lot of dancing on goal celebrations. But along with creating that vibe in the locker room, it opens a space for players to grow and develop. “Chicho” is the oldest in the group of Colombians, but he isn’t coming in to be the type of leader that dishes out orders.

That’s not how he navigates anyway.

Instead he will lean on his experiences to hopefully teach others while ultimately continuing to learn himself.

His training sessions with Rodriguez in Colombia before joining RSL laid out the blueprint.

“He’s a great person not only just 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 that who has been so successful in his career. The positive energy can be contagious.”

Utah is a long way from Medellin. The differences outweigh the similarities. Within that contrast, however, lies a sense of peace and love. The tranquility comes from Arango finally being settled 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 said “gracias a Dios” for choosing this destiny.

Despite only being in Utah for a short amount of time, he already feels comfortable.

“When I got here to Salt Lake I received an embrace I honestly wasn’t expecting,” Arango told Yahoo Sports. “It was incredible the way they welcomed me and my family, and that fills you with motivation to give it your all. It’s a fanbase that deserves my full respect and effort on the field.”

Saturday is the awaited moment where he will make his debut against Orlando City home in Sandy, Utah. When asked about his feelings before the match, he did not hesitate before saying, “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 the moment means, but he suggests that maybe the next match might be significant.

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

He laughed and then thought back even further.

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

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

“I’m close.”

As if he needed more incentive to do what he’s been doing all his life.