This story originally was posted on Oct. 28, 2016
By Michael Lewis
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — After defending against midfielder Juan Arango as a teammate in scrimmages and as an opponent in games, Hunter Freeman knows what the veteran midfielder has brought to the table for the top-of-the-table Cosmos this season.
The former Venezuelan international is one crafty and intelligent player who has proven to be a headache on the field to North American Soccer League foes.
“He has freedom to go anywhere and that’s what can make him difficult to track,” Freeman said. “We never knows where he’s going to pop up. He’s experienced and smart enough to know that.
Freeman, who was sold by the Cosmos to Miami FC in September, then went into Arango’s mindset.
“OK, if I’m not getting the ball here in the center, I’m going to go somewhere else and see if I can get the ball there,” he said about Arango. “If I’m not getting it there, I’m going to switch and go to the other side.”
Then the veteran defender returned to his voice.
“If you give him time on the ball and get his head up and let him and let him play a pass, he’s going to put it where it needs to be,” he said.
Many times this year, that has been in the back of the net or to the feet or the head of a teammate.
As the Cosmos enter their regular-season finale at Minnesota United SC Saturday night, the 37-year-old Arango has tallied 15 times, second only to Minnesota’s Christian Ramirez’s league-leading 18 goals. Add his team-best seven assisted — which ties the Venezuelan for second in the NASL, and you’re got a legitimate MVP candidate.
Not surprisingly, some of Arango’s teammates have felt he should be MVP.
“I don’t know why not,” midfielder Adam Moffat said. “Obviously other guys have had great years. You look at [Indy Eleven’s Eamon] Zayed, Ramirez. Obviously, those guys are scoring goals. Maybe he has stood out more than others. Then you have [goalkeeper Matt] VanOekel in Edmonton who has nine clean sheets. A lot of guys have had good years. But yeah, I definitely don’t see why he wouldn’t win it. Being on a team that has been the most successful, very much the major contributor there.”
Goalkeeper Jim Maurer agreed.
“Definitely. He’s been unbelievable for us this year,” he said. “He’s been such a great player. It seems that he scores big goals at big times, big moments for us. Just so great creating-wise, creates a lot of chances for other players as well. That’s why he’s had such a great career, a great player.”
It took one former great player to convince a current great player to join the Cosmos this season.
Head coach Giovanni Savarese, who forged his goal-scoring reputation with the Long Island Rough Riders, MetroStars and the Venezuelan national team, played with Arango when both were with Caracas in their native country.
Before he joined the Cosmos, Arango’s reputation already had been established, having played with Monterrey, Pachuca, Puebla and Tijuana in Mexico, Mallorca in Spain and Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Bundesliga for five seasons. And oh yes, he has accrued a country-record 23 goals in 128 appearances for Venezuela.
“I was a little bit older so I had the chance to be with him,” Savarese said. “That’s one of the reasons he could come to play with us, his relationship as teammates and as friends as well.”
It has worked out better than expected. When the 5-11, 168-lb. midfielder converted a free kick to lift the Cosmos into a 3-0 advantage over Miami FC in their 4-0 triumph last Saturday, it was the third consecutive free-kick attempt he scored on, a mind-blowing number. Arango connected twice on set pieces late in the match in the 4-2 comeback win at Jacksonville two weeks ago.
“He also puts flashes of color into the game,” Savarese said. “He has the one that has the possibility to create the different play, the different pass, the different solution in not only the goal, not only the assists, but an understanding of a winner that knows needs to be able to get the result that we need.”
Arango’s 15 goals is a modern Cosmos career record — surpassing Marco Senna’s 13 goals he registered from 2013-2015 — and the most in the franchise since Roberto Cabanas (league-leading 25 goals), Giorgio Chinaglia (18) and Steve Moyers (15) scored during the 1983 NASL season.
Had the legendary Raul piled up numbers like that as a 38-year-old last year, the Cosmos and the league would have gone gaga over it. He finished his final season with eight goals in 28 games.
After scoring one goal and setting up teammates for two others in a 4-0 victory over Miami FC last Saturday, Arango downplayed his achievement, stating that playoff success was more important than individual achievements.
“I wasn’t really aware of the whole Marcos Senna history because I don’t follow it that closely, the stats,” he said through a translator. “But I am very happy to achieve this new record. Hopefully somebody can come in the future and break my record. Records are to be broken. We have to perform and do something important for the club in the playoffs.”
During that post-match session was Arango’s humbleness.
When asked how confident the team was, he replied, “In soccer you can never be too confident. You can attack the whole game. and the other guys can just score. So, we’re not overconfident. Today, mathematically we already qualified. Technically, there was not anything that could happen to us. Yet, we went out there and played the match like we wanted to win. And fortunately, we won.”
A reporter brought up the fact Arango has scored eight home goals this season and asked about his performance. Like a good player shifting the point of attack to the other side of the field, the veteran midfielder talked about the team, not himself.
“We’ve done great as a team because we’ve been united but still its not enough,” he said. “We still have to put our best effort to show what we can do in the semifinal.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game is that Arango is 37 and no spring chicken. Let’s face it. Soccer is a young man’s game.
Yet, Arango has kept himself in shape and avoided injuries to become one of the most lethal NASL players.
“For someone who’s 37, I think he’s only missed one or two games,” Freeman said. “That’s probably more Gio’s call than his. He’s kept himself healthy. At any age throughout the season, it’s difficult to do. To do it at 37 and to be producing the amount of goals that he has is certainly a great season for him. I know that’s probably Gio had in mind when he brought him into the team but I think probably he didn’t think he would score as many goals as he has. He’s certainly one of the better players in the league.”
Whether Arango will be one of the better players in the league in 2017, it remains to be seen. No decision has been made just yet.
Savarese, for one, would love to have him return.
“Of course, I think it will be fantastic to have Juan back,” he said. “We’ll see at the end of the season the conversations that we will have and make some decisions and see if that’s what he wants to do. From my point, it would be ideal to have him back.”