That he's rocketed from Development Academy phenom to an integral role with a Major League Soccer playoff side in a matter of months hasn't caught those who know him best by surprise. They saw this coming.
Araujo's mom? She's pinching herself.
“Every coach would say, 'This kid is going to be something special, this kid is going to go far,'" Lupe Araujo said. “I really never got it in my mind. I was taking it one step at a time. ... Things have moved so quickly. Sometimes I can't even take the time to realize how real this is. And how unreal.”
It's real, all right. Julian Araujo, just 17 when he signed with the LA Galaxy's top team right before the season began, has looked most at home when stepping in at right back or on the right side of midfield, making 19 appearances with 10 starts in his rookie campaign. His ability to go forward and his aggressive one-on-defending have won praise, and he's only now starting to understand the game, his role, and what it takes to get the job done at this level.
“He's getting to be a professional,” head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “You have a bigger step, a longer step, when you are an academy player and to get to be professional. It's not [about] signing the contract, it's to feel professional. And he's getting this step now.”
Araujo, who figures to be in the Galaxy's 18 for Sunday's MLS playoff opener at Minnesota United FC, acknowledges it hasn't been easy, that he's had to grow up off the field as much as he has between the lines.
“I'm trying to get as much experience as I can, and I know it's only going to lead me [forward in] my career,” he said. “This has been a very big challenge in my life, but, obviously, it's a blessing. ...
“One of the things I'm happiest with this season has been the amount of playing time that I've gotten. And just training with the players that we have here and learning everyday and gaining the experience and knowledge that they have. The guys are always hard on me, and they're demanding a lot of me, but I think it's just going to help me in the future.”
Julian Araujo was called up to the U.S. U-18 national team while captain of the Barça Residency Academy USA U-17 team in Casa Grande, Arizona. (Photo Courtesy of Barca Residency Academy USA)
He's made a rapid ascent from Santa Barbara Soccer Club, where he won a national title with teammates three years older than he, to Barca Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona, which led to him wowing all during a one-week training session at La Masia in March of 2018, to the Galaxy, where he saw a few minutes with the USL-based second team after arriving near the close of the season.
In no time, LA was talking to Araujo, who turned 18 in August, about a contract with the first team, and -- after trading for the top spot on the league's waiver list -- he was with the big club. He made his MLS debut in a March 16 home victory over Minnesota United, got his first start in place of an injured Rolf Feltscher a month later in a home win over Houston Dynamo, and has featured regularly since.
“He's super athletic, and he's tough to beat,” said center back Daniel Steres, who lines up next to Araujo. “He's got an engine, he's always trying to get in on tackles, he's always trying to put [opposing] defenders on their back foot. Recently we've seen him make these runs that, you know, how's he getting into the box?
“He's always looking for, he's always going, he's always working. That's the thing. He's just working, which is good for a kid that age.”
He was the youngest player on the U.S. roster, although he did not play, at the U-20 World Cup in Poland earlier this year, and could be the USA's right back of the future. Although he could be eligible to switch to the Mexican national team program.
His parents, Jorge and Lupe Araujo, immigrated as 14-year-olds from Mexico to California, where they met and married. Julian grew up watching Mexican soccer at family gatherings, where there were fans of Club America, Guadalajara and Cruz Azul.
“I'm just going with the flow,” he said. “I'm happy right now with the U.S., but if one opportunity is bigger than the other, then I'm going to take it. I know I'm happy with the U.S. and everything they've provided for me, but if Mexico comes at me, then we'll have to make a choice. ... It's just the way soccer works.”
Julian, is the youngest three children, began playing AYSO when he was 4 in Lompoc. It's an activity rather than a competition at that age, and it wasn't enough to satisfy him.
Julian Araujo (left) started out in AYSO before joining the Santa Barbara Soccer Club via the Central Coast Condors. (Photo Courtesy of Lupe Araujo)
“He just always wanted to have a real game,” Lupe Araujo said. “He wanted to have goalies to block the goal, he wanted it to be competitive. He always liked the competition, the challenges. If he sees players that are good, he wants to be as good as them or maybe even better.”
He started club ball with the Central Coast Condors, from Arroyo Grande, when he was 12, and he soon moved to Santa Barbara Soccer Club, where his development took off.
“From day one, you noticed that he was always trying to find more training time for himself and his development,” said Rudy Ybarra, who serves as SBSC's academy technical director and has guided four club teams to national championships. “He was very hungry and a player who you just knew had something special.”
Araujo was primarily a right-sided midfielder to that point, but he was moved to center back when he was first called in to the U.S. under-16 national team, and that position stuck when playing against players his age. Ybarra thought his future would be at right back, and he moved him to his 1998 team -- three years up -- and watched him blossom.
Ybarra recommended Araujo to his former teammate with the L.A. Aztecs' indoor team Todd Saldana, the Los Angeles FC academy director then working with the Galaxy.
“I said you've got to look at this guy, you've gotta give him a chance. I think this guys has something really special,” Ybarra said. “It takes time in the scouting system, plenty of scouts out to look at him play, but eventually with his ability and what he was demonstrating on the field and a little bit of persistence on our side, recommending Julian, eventually Dennis [te Kloese, the Galaxy's general manager] and Todd opened the doors, and the rest is history.”
Araujo left home at 15 when he moved from SBSC to Barcelona's Arizona academy, and he flourished.
“He's got an intensity in everything that he does,” said former Barca Residency Academy director Sean McCafferty, now director of the New York Red Bulls' academy. “From our standpoint, it was just helping him contain. He was aggressive, but almost to a fault ... trying to step in and win it all the time rather than recognizing when to go, when to kind of stay.”
McCafferty and his staff worked with Araujo to improve his understanding of the game, give him the tools to make proper decisions, help him best to utilize his strengths. They cemented his move to right back, too.
“We could see from the start that he has next-level attributes,” McCafferty said. “For us, it was working with him with decision-making with the ball, how to connect simple into midfield, how to take space, commit players and be able to break pressure that way. The easy part was him getting involved in the attack, getting forward, getting advanced of the wide players, balls in the box, things of that nature.
“Sometimes he would be very dangerous, very attack-minded. It was just getting him to understand the when and the where and the why.”
Araujo says that's where he discovered how far he could go in soccer.
“When I went out there, I got a lot more serious,” he said. “Everything was a step higher [than I'd previously encountered]. Obviously, a lot of kids want to be a professional soccer player, but I think it was turning into reality [at Barca]. I started to get a lot of calls, and my mom started getting calls, and everything after that, it just turned around. I just put everything else aside and played my game, and then everything happened.”
Araujo was awarded with a one-week stint at Barcelona's famed La Masia academy in Spain, a trip he almost canceled upon learning at the airport that his best friend, Michael Taylor, had died. His parents, noting a conversation Araujo and Taylor had on the eve of the trek, convinced him to go.
“They loved him,” McCafferty said. “He was excellent. You can always gauge [guest players] by how they're treated, and they were giving him the ball, even calling his name. They felt he was at their level, which is arguably the highest of the highest level in youth in Europe or maybe the world. He fit in perfectly there.
“He was different to what they had, which I think they liked. They liked how explosive he was, they liked how assertive he can be on both sides of the ball. If he had a European passport, he would probably [have stayed in Barcelona], in all honesty.”
Barcelona's loss was the Galaxy's gain. McCafferty knew Araujo would be moving on quickly and knew he would adapt just as quickly.
“I'm not surprised one bit [by what's he done with the Galaxy],” he said. “There were numerous clubs that wanted to sign him to pro contract as soon as we played against [their Development Academy teams]. You could see that he was beyond the academy already. It was almost too easy [for him], just his change of pace, his kind of edge, his aggressiveness.”
Araujo found much he needed to work on once he joined the Galaxy.
“I know there's stuff that I need to improve on, and I know that I can work on it,” he said. “Like my final pass. When I'm attacking, I tend to hesitate, and when I'm in the final third, it's not that I don't know what to do, but I feel pressure. Or I feel like, 'Oh, well, what do I do?' I get under pressure and I sometimes make the wrong pass or give the ball away next to [the opponent's] box.
“Sometimes I get cut off just watching the ball. Sometimes my player's behind me and I hesitate to go to him, but I'm learning. I think I'm a whole different player. Physically, I've gotten a lot stronger, I've learned a lot on and off the field, everybody around me has given me advice on everything. Seven months ago, I wasn't living on my own. I was still with friends and family, and I wasn't paying bills. Now it's like a whole different lifestyle.”
Araujo's parents make the three-and-a-hour drive down the coast to see most of the Galaxy's home games. Araujo's pro debut was in honor of his father, who was fighting leukemia at the time -- he's in remission now -- and Michael Taylor, what he calls “two shots to my heart” and says “are the people that I do this for and that I'll always represent.”
Lupe Araujo is still trying to wrap her mind around it all.
“[Seeing him play with the Galaxy] is very emotional, very unreal,” she said. “Sometimes people ask me here in our town, 'Do you realize what Julian is doing?' It doesn't come to my mind yet, because ... every game I've watched since he was younger, I've enjoyed it as much as I do now. But I do need to realize that this is real and it's amazing.
“It's an accomplishment. It's just unbelievable. We are just a very proud family.”