LOS ANGELES — Kellyn Acosta mused, “Big players make big plays in big moments,” glancing over and smiling at his teammate, Cristian “Chicho” Arango. LAFC had just won their last and most important El Tráfico of 2022 to reach the Western Conference Final in stoppage time thanks to a fervent touch from none-other than Chicho.
Recall the age-old adage about heroes rising to the occasion and not merely being born. Chicho has strived to be as animated on the pitch as the popular global anime soccer hero Tsubasa Ozora who inspired more than one of his tattoos. Even his goal celebrations mimic his cartoon hero – the peace sign is a gesture also made by Ozora and meant to evoke the spirit of pure fun that Arango wants to inspire in the next generation of soccer stars.
Arango joined LAFC with Target Allocation Money reported to be around $2.5 million as a newcomer to the MLS league in August of 2021, more than midway through the season. Yet in short time, he catapulted himself above 249 other new players in the league to win MLS’ Newcomer of the Year award by posting 14 goals and 2 assists in 17 matches. In doing so, he also became the first LAFC player to win the coveted league recognition. He’d had one of the most successful starts in MLS history and scored the fastest goal in LAFC’s history (20 seconds). He became the fourth LAFC player to net a hat trick, scoring three goals against FC Dallas on Oct. 20th. And, he reaped the ultimate reward – his first call-up to the Colombian National Team, making his debut for his home on November 16, 2021.
Chicho has continued propelling himself upwards in 2022, while adjusting his own style to match new head coach Steve Cherundolo’s expectations for contributing in the team’s defensive strategy as well as scoring opportunities. Newcomer no more, he is now a finalist for MLS MVP of the Year. And even though he had no hat tricks this year, he boasts one of the highest goal rates in the league (0.61/90 minutes). His productivity has yielded 18 goals and 4 assists across MLS competition (regular season and playoffs) in 36 matches. He still has room for growth in his shot conversion rate under 15% (Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar is 18%, LA Galaxy’s Chicharito is around 20%).
There is a sense of purity in Arango’s simple love for the game. Untarnished by global fame and fortune, and able to still recall the reasons he became a soccer player have been key to the consistent spark he demonstrates on the pitch. Though he came from the Colombian Millionarios, his guaranteed compensation is currently $683,000. And, even as he embodies making a big play in a big moment as he just did in the latest Western Conference Semifinal, he credited his team. “I feel like it’s a team goal. To have my teammates run as they did, to defend as they did, attack as we did, this goal represents all of that.” Cristian Arango’s heroic plays represent unfiltered hope without hype.
Yet there is another style of hero, another candidate for MLS MVP of the Year, a figurehead from LAFC’s rivaling team that was just eliminated from the remaining MLS Playoffs. Hope as he does, Javier Hernández has not yet lived up to the hype of his own highly decorated past. When the larger-than-life Zlatan Ibrahimović parted ways with LA Galaxy and MLS at the end of 2019, there was an enormous expectation and opportunity for their next international superstar signing. They chose the legendary Chicharito (“little pea”) to replace the lion of soccer.
On paper, it was a pricey match made in heaven. Sevilla was paid $9.4 million for the transfer and LA Galaxy agreed upon a three-year contract with Hernandez for a guaranteed compensation of around $7.4 million. Then, the realities of 2020 set in. Not only was the season in jeopardy from the ravages of COVID-19, Chicharito was injured, battling depression after the death of his grandfather, Tomás Balcázar – legendary Mexican professional footballer, and he was trying to rediscover his abilities to score with ease. But he scored just two goals in the entire 2020 season and a battle royale (El Tráfico) between him and former teammate Carlos Vela did not take place until 2022. A whole lot of hype. Javi would clearly not be MLS Newcomer of the Year as his Lion predecessor had been in 2018. But, to forgo 2020 is to be human. It was an exceptional year for everyone.
In 2021, things for Javi were beginning to look up. He played in 21 matches and scored 17 goals plus 3 assists, but a streak of six missed matches in the late summer due to a calf injury cost his team. If the ultimate goal was to make the playoffs, the Galaxy had missed.
And, while Chicharito was struggling to rebound, a newcomer from Colombia was revving up his own goal count. Chicho had arrived in MLS. LAFC found an answer to where to turn if and when their own former star scorer Carlos Vela was indisposed. By the end of 2021, Javier Hernández was still finding his footing in MLS and lamenting his team’s season in 8th place in the West.
There’s a lot to be said about how far Chicharito’s heroism has taken him in MLS. He is well-known for being open and sincere with the media, and his reputation precedes him to the point where all his teammates defer to his leadership. His name still carries respect. His jersey is still one of the top four sold in the league. Still, even his best year here – 18 goals, 2 assists in 32 games (31 starts) with a rate of 0.62 goals/90 minutes – wasn’t enough to push his team beyond the Western Conference Semifinal. His lapses in production in the big moments cost his team more than just a point here and there. And his poor rate of successful penalty kicks has made him an easy target for critics.
The biggest moment of 2022 for Chicharito has passed. Perhaps no one knows that better than Hernández. Reflecting back in 2021, he pinpointed humbleness and consistency as being critical for success on the field.
“We were just five minutes away from the playoffs, and then I stayed in my couch, watching the playoffs and seeing New York City winning the championship. Not something that I wanted. So it’s like, yeah, consistency. Be very humble because I think humbleness sometimes people think that being humble means you need to be like, submissive, but like being humble is like, you don’t see no one who is above you but you don’t see no one who is below you. You know, we all have the same chances, we are all humans.”
Chicho was given the same chances this year, and so far, he has risen to the challenge.
As for Chicharito, he is planning to continue on with the Galaxy and I have no doubt he will keep trying to outperform the hype around him. If he can return to a place of pure and humble hope, who knows where he can help his team go next year.
Hope always wins over hype.