Chicho Arango’s recent goal from the halfway line is symbolic of the statement that Real Salt Lake has made with its play so far this season.

RSL (9-6-2) is off to its best start in team history and sits atop Major League Soccer’s Western Conference at the halfway point of the season with a 13-game unbeaten streak. It’s the first time Salt Lake has been atop the conference standings since April 2016.

They’ll have a chance to match the club’s record unbeaten run when they face Montreal on June 15 after soccer’s international break.

“I think every game from here on out is going to be very difficult,” RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “I think teams are going to prepare for us differently than they used to in the past. And so the onus is on us to be one step ahead.”

At the heart of RSL is Arango, the team’s 29-year-old Colombian captain who leads the Golden Boot race with 16 goals, as well as nine assists. That’s three more goals that D.C. United’s Christian Benteke and four more than Lionel Messi at Inter Miami.

Arango joined the team last June after a short stint with Pachuca in Liga MX. Before that, he played a pair of seasons with LAFC.

He had 14 goals in his first 17 games in 2021 with Los Angeles and went on to win the league’s Newcomer of the Year Award. The next year he helped guide LAFC to the MLS Cup title.

Last weekend, Arango scored a hat trick in RSL’s 5-1 victory over Austin FC. His first goal came from 62.7 yards out, beyond the field’s center line, and is certainly in the early running for goal of the year.

After the match, Arango proudly brought his father into the post-game news conference.

“He’s come to a club that believes in him and that knows the difference that he can make, you know, and so I think wearing the armband this year has definitely not only helped Chicho because he’s a person that wants to take on responsibility, but it’s made our team better,” Mastroeni said.

It was Arango’s second hat trick and fifth multi-goal game this season. He also matched Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz for the second-fastest active player to reach 50 career MLS goals.

With 16 goals, he’s just one away from from matching RSL’s single season record set by Alvaro Saborio in 2012.

The current success is by no means all because of Arango. Anderson Julio had two goals in the victory over Austin. Colombian midfielder Andres Gomez, in his second year with the team, has contributed eight goals with six assists.

Defensively, RSL has allowed just 19 goals this season, tied for second fewest in the West.

“Since I’ve been on the team I think this is definitely the deepest we’ve been, for sure the best record I’ve had in any year, so it’s exciting to be on this team right now,” defender Justen Glad said.

Arango is steady with his approach. There’s still a half of a season left, after all.

“It’s about keeping the mentality. We know that we haven’t accomplished anything yet. We have been working very well together and we want bigger objectives,” Arango said. “We are on the right track, yes, but the objectives are in sight and we will work to achieve them.”

___

AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer