Julian Araujo is headed to Europe.
There's no debate about that, never has been. The only question is how soon, and speculation -- accelerated by FC Barcelona's pronounced interest -- has the 21-year-old LA Galaxy defender on the verge.
Araujo, the Galaxy's first-choice right back for at least the past two and a half seasons, is an extraordinary talent, perhaps Major League Soccer's finest attacking fullback, the No. 5 selection for the second straight year on the league's annual 22 Under 22 list.
Europe has been his aim since he was a teen phenom in Lompoc, some 150 miles northwest of LA's headquarters, but if it seems that Saturday afternoon's MLS playoff opener against Nashville SC could -- should things not go the home side's way -- be his final game in a Galaxy uniform, peer a little closer.
Anything is possible, but not everything is probable.
"I want to finish up the season here, and whatever happens in the next year or whatever, whatever it is, I know the timing's going to be right," Araujo, whose nine assists and vastly improving defensive play contributed mightily to LA's second postseason berth since Bruce Arena departed six years ago, told Soccer America. "I'm just trusting God. I have faith, and I know that it'll happen and when the time is right.
"I'm a true believer that what's for me is for me, and I believe that when it happens, it's going to be the right time. I'm excited for when it comes."
When might that be? No telling. Araujo is under contract with LA through 2025, and he's certainly got more to fine-tune within his game. The Galaxy, especially since Greg Vanney and his staff took charge last year, have worked diligently in shoring up what was missing from his game and making him more consistent in the areas in which he excelled. There's more work to be done, and he likely needs another year, perhaps two, before it's time to cross the Atlantic.
"That's not for me [to say]," said assistant coach Dan Calichman, a former Galaxy center back who has worked extensively with Araujo on his defensive know-how. "That's for probably the club and someone in Europe to decide, and maybe Jules as well. But yeah, he's still developing, right? We can look back at this season, and I think you can see his progression. And Europe is going to want him when they know they've got an unbelievable two-way player, that they have a guy that can get up and down the field and whips balls in and makes accurate crosses. But on the same end can defend.
"Those outside backs in Europe are dealing with some of the greatest players, right? The wingers are unbelievable. You've got to be able to defend, you've got to be able to do that job as well. When he's that, I'm sure they're going to come calling. There'll be lots of calls."
The calls are already coming in. Several European clubs have been linked to Araujo over the past couple of years, and Mexico's Club America made an approach this past summer. Araujo dismissed that one.
"I'm happy with the Galaxy," he said. "I want my move to be to Europe. I'm not saying that I don't want to go to Liga MX, because I definitely want to go to Liga MX before my career ends. I just feel for me to reach my highest potential, I need to go to Europe, and that's what I'm looking for."
Barcelona has acknowledged that it's monitoring Araujo, who spent time in the club's Arizona-based residency academy, is keenly watching his development, and Araujo said "it felt good" to hear of this.
"One of the best teams in the world has eyes on you and is looking for you and is going to keep attracting me?" he said. "Obviously, that gives me a lot of confidence."
It did not make him want to make the jump more quickly. Things will happen naturally, he understands, and that's for the best. He wants to be at his best when that time arrives, and there's still some distance to go.
He's covered a lot of ground since the new Galaxy staff took charge in January 2021, becoming more of a complete player -- a stronger defender with a far better understanding of the game -- beyond his ability to attack the flanks.
"First and foremost, he's a huge competitor," said Vanney, a left back and center back whose playing career began and finished with the Galaxy. "Intensity is there, his drive, motivation to get better, all of those things are there, and then obviously his athleticism, his speed, all the things that he has that are his foundation for becoming a great player.
"The process for him since he's arrived at the Galaxy was adding to that his decision-making. It's some of the tactical pieces, continuing to build on the techniques that he needs to be a right back. Getting his timing right of when he makes his runs forward, getting those final balls into good spots, which we've seen more and more so, and then nuances of the position, which is what we've been trying to work with: when to be inside, when to be outside, when to stay in a covering position, when to get yourself into the attack. It's just building some of that thought process that I think will help take him to the highest level that he's capable of playing in."
Araujo sees a difference.
"I feel I've improved a lot, I've matured a lot, I've grown as a footballer [this year]," he said. "I think that all happens with the players that have been around me, the coaching staff that we have, and it's helped build me to the player I am today. I've positioned myself better to stop counterattacks to help my team win the ball back. I feel like I haven't been in attack when I'm not so supposed to be there, and I've been more efficient [in the attack]. I think I've grown in a lot of ways."
"He's kind of always been seen as just this athlete, this runner, this guy that can run all day up and down the flanks," he said. "When he talked about it, [it was] like he wasn't defining himself as a footballer, he was defining himself as this athlete, this runner. So from the beginning [with us], it was 'no, you want to be defined as a footballer. You want to be defined as this guy who is tactically sound.'"
There was plenty to work on. Araujo was a runner, a most effective one, but he was a novice as a defender and as a reader of the game, unversed in the detail of his position and how it relates to his teammates around him and to his team as a whole. He was hungry for information and illumination.
"I think he's getting more comfortable in terms of his role, where he fits in within the group," Vanney said. "I think his reading of the game is getting better. His talent has always been the physical aspect of the game, and his intensity and competitiveness has always been his strength. Where we've challenged him is a little bit more on the game-reading side and the understanding of maybe when to be a little bit inside, when to be outside, when to be in a defensive-cover position vs. when to take off and be in an attacking position.
"Before, when he was a younger player, it was just attack, attack, attack, attack, and then you'd give up some spaces in behind you. I see continued growth in that. ... I think he's getting more comfortable playing when the ball is coming to his feet and finding passes between lines versus just looking to run up and down the lines. I think it's maturity in the position and nuance [beyond] just one thing kind of all the time."
Araujo, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up at the south end of California's 200-mile-long Central Coast and emerged from Santa Barbara Soccer Club, where at 14 former NASL forward Rudy Ybarra moved the talented right winger/forward to the backline.
"He thought at the professional ranks I was going to be a right back," Araujo said. "And here we are, and I'm a right back."
Araujo embraced the change -- "You get the best of both sides ... I think it's the best position on the field" -- and advanced steadily, soon joining Barca Academy, the Spanish giant's only U.S. developmental center. It made him grow up quickly.
"Leaving my family and friends behind was definitely hard, but I I had big dreams," he said. "I knew I had to get out of [Santa Barbara] to accomplish what I wanted to do. My dream was to always become a professional soccer player, and I knew I had to leave, and I knew it had to be uncomfortable in order to achieve my dreams."
It was almost all soccer all the time in isolated Casa Grande. The highlight of the week off the field was a trek "every Wednesday to a Walmart to go grocery shopping."
"You live and breathe soccer over there," Araujo said. "You're fully locked in. You don't have much around, you don't have many distractions, and all you can do is play soccer. ... I knew it was going to be tougher than where I was at. That's why I made the jump, because I needed a new challenge. I needed something that is going to help me grow, something that's going to have to be uncomfortable, because I think that pressure, that uncomfortability, gets me to my highest performance."
He made his U.S. youth national team debut with the U-16s in 2017 -- he'd play at five age levels for the Yanks, be part of the 2019 U-19 World Cup and 2020 Olympic qualifying squads -- and signed with Galaxy II, LA's team in the second-tier USL Championship, just before his 17th birthday the following year.
Promoted to the first team seven months later, he made 10 starts in 18 appearances under Guillermo Barros Schelotto in 2018 and was the team's clear No. 1 right back before the following season had proceeded very far. Talk of Europe arrived shortly afterward, nudged by Araujo's proclamation that that's where he would be going.
He wasn't ready yet, and that became clear to him when Vanney and Co. took over.
“His perspective and his mindset a year ago was he was quite ambitious to try to move on, to go play in Europe,” Vanney told Soccer America last November. “We spent a lot of time working with Julian to help him develop more attributes of the position ... add a little bit more game-reading, a little more sophistication in the position. Some of the things that we think he'll need when he ultimately makes that move to Europe.
“At the end of [the 2021 season], he sat down, he says, 'I just can't believe how much I've been learning, and I know I have a lot more to learn.' So he's not as in a rush to say I have to go to Europe right now. He knows between what we're doing with his work and our commitment to him to help get him to the best version, so when he does make that jump, it's the best jump possible.”
To get there, Araujo has worked extensively with Calichman and fellow assistant coach Jason Bent. Much of the instruction takes place in the film room.
"[It's] learning from your mistakes," Araujo said. "I've had mistakes I can improve on, and I try to build off that everyday in training, trying to be the best version of myself."
"We spend a lot of time watching video," Calichman said. "Jules, he's a willing learner, which makes it so nice, and he's got a great attitude about it. And he's never defensive about things. And he's sharp. And people who are willing learners, especially at that age, the world is their oyster, so to speak. They can learn so much and they can do so much and they stay extra and they work, and that what Jules did. He put in a solid year of working, and, yeah, there are times we all make mistakes, but he was never defensive about it. He always looks at it. He goes, 'All right. Well, next week we'll be better. Next week I'll do this, next week I'll do that.'
"I think his attitude is the thing that's going to get him to whatever next level there is for him. And certainly I think there's many levels more, but that attitude, his willingness to not take things personally and to work, and to learn ... his future is absolutely bright. And it's exciting to have this part of Julian's career that we've been able to work with him."
Araujo's greatest advances this year, Vanney says, have been in his emotional game. He was assessed 17 yellow cards and two reds -- six of the yellow and both reds in 17 games in 2018 -- over 67 league games in his first three seasons.
"He's grown a lot in his emotional management," Vanney said. "Right before I got here, he was constantly in confrontations and involved in things emotionally, and now I think he's starting to find that cerebral balance, where you're allowing information to get to the logical part of your brain and not just settling for the emotional part. I see some maturity on that side of things."
Araujo has progressed with the help of Mike Rabasca, the Galaxy's director of cognitive performance, using meditation to deal with what had been difficult situations.
"When I first started in my career, I was not handling my emotions too well," Araujo said. "I was pushing people. I was doing things that maybe I shouldn't have done. [Meditation has helped me in] focusing on myself, controlling what I can. Saying to myself, 'Just take a deep breath,' when I get in situations like that. I think I've handled it very well.
"You know, I haven't been in a situation like that this year. I've been able to control myself, and I think it's helped me grow as a player. ... When I made a mistake, I would throw my head down or I would think about it the whole game. But now after every play is a new play, and I'm just trying to stay locked in and try to do my best."
There is growing nuance in his play, and the summer-window additions of midfielders Gaston Brugman and Riqui Puig have helped make better sense of how Vanney wants his team to play. The Galaxy (14-12-8) have gone 3-0-1 since mid-September, playing some of its finest soccer of the campaign, to rise from outside the playoff zone to fourth place in the Western Conference, and Araujo has been at his best during that span.
"The one thing we're talking a lot about with Jules is to make sure when he's not directly involved in the play is to make sure he's fully aware of all of his surroundings, that he's constantly taking in information," Vanney said. "He's not just focusing on his mark or the ball, but he's actually assessing all of the pieces and he's gathering all the information all the time to make the best decision when he does need to make a decision. Because he does understand the solutions."
These advances are good news for Mexico, too. Araujo is one of three players to have won caps for the U.S. and El Tri, to which he switched his allegiance a year ago, and he's in the pool of players from which Gerardo "Tata" Martino will choose his roster for the coming World Cup in Qatar. More likely is 2026, when Mexico will stage the tournament alongside the U.S. and Canada.
"I'm happy with Mexico," said Araujo, who debuted with El Tri last Dec. 8 in a 2-2 draw with Chile in Austin and won another cap in a 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama last February at Estadio Azteca. "Like with everything else, my time will come. I have big aspirations to play in a World Cup. I want to start in a World Cup, and I want to do whatever I can to help Mexico win it."
He's got a long list of things to work on.
"I want to be better at communicating with my teammates," he said. "I want to be more of a leader. ... I need to be more of a voice. I feel like I can definitely make a big difference in that. I want to defensively be better one-v-one. I want to be better in staying connected in my back line. I still want to continue to grow and still get better [offensively and in] reading the game. Not falling asleep when [opponents] play one-two and the third runs through. I got to stay locked in on that as well. My crossing, I want to get better.
"I'm a learner.. I'm someone that always wants to learn, and I try everyday to improve my game. I try to work hard and and take it to the next game. And. yeah, I try to just be consistent."
All that work will lead to Europe, and now it's about being patient.
"Look, I think the most important thing for Julian is that he, in his mind, he's calm and content to make progress," said Vanney, who played three years in France. "Not feeling like he's in a rush to get somewhere else so that he has to get somewhere else. That's not just Julian. That's the people around Julian. Julian just needs to focus on improving everyday, keep taking steps forward, learning the game, getting better at things and it's hard not get drawn into the national-team stuff, not get drawn into the going-to-Europe things, because those change the emotion, too. And then when you emotionally are like kind of all over the place, it will impact performance. You get anxiety, you get nervous, you get these different things.
"The hard part, I think sometimes, for a young player like Jules is that you're trying to manage a lot of things that are going on around you. You know, stuff like Barcelona and 'is this real? Is it not real? Who's stirring it up?' What does he believe is going on? It creates a different emotion that's not easy for young players. And so at the end of the day, my best advice to Jules -- having not been in the same position but been thinking about Europe in the past -- is be present in where you are in the moment. And if you keep getting better, the best options will open up for you and you'll be ready for them."
Araujo understands this. But Europe is beckoning, and he understands this, too.
"Right now, I'm with the Galaxy. I'm focused here," Araujo said. "I want to win a championship here. I want to win an MLS Cup with the Galaxy. My goal is to go to Europe. My goal is to play in Europe. I want to play in the highest leagues possible, [for] the best teams possible. I know [playing in Europe is] going to help me tremendously. I'm going to grow as a footballer. I'm going to learn more about the game. I'm going to be better. And that's ultimately what I want."
Photos: LA Galaxy, Concacaf.com