Carlos Vela is making his case as, if not the best current MLS player, the most efficient and important.
If Major League Soccer as a central entity keeps a shopping list of players it desires, Carlos Vela was surely near the top of that list for a long, long time. More illustrious names have been targeted – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney were once on it before being eventually lured last year, while Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still cataloged – but the striker was seen as perfect for North American soccer.
And so it has proved. Vela’s appeal to MLS clubs always centered around his nationality and his status as a Mexican soccer icon, with North American soccer all too keen to tap into the thirst for the game south of the border, but the 30-year-old has exceeded all expectations in terms of what he might offer on the pitch.
With a goal against Minnesota United last week, Vela tied the league’s all-time single season scoring record – a tally of 31 set by Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez the season before. He did this with one game of the regular season still to play and the playoffs still to come. What the Mexican has achieved this season has been unprecedented.
In fact, what Los Angeles FC have achieved in general has been unprecedented. This is only their season ever season having joined MLS as an expansion franchise last year, but they are already Supporters’ Shield winners, dominating the regular season from start to finish, and must now be considered the frontrunners for MLS Cup despite a recent slight dip in form.
Vela is the player around which Bob Bradley has built his LAFC team. When the Mexican was injured for a spell early last month, we saw the impact as the Californians went four games without a win. That isn’t to say LAFC are a one man team, far from it. It’s just that without Vela they lack their figurehead and spiritual leader. He is more than just a goalscorer.
This is a player who has always struggled to find his place in the sport. There was much excitement over Vela as a youngster at Arsenal, breaking through at the Emirates Stadium as a teenager. The Mexican never flourished into the superstar so many believed he would become, meandering through the early years of his career on loan at various different clubs.
Celta Vigo, Salamanca, Osasuna, West Brom… Vela never played more than 35 games for any of them and never reached double figures in terms of goals scorer. Over time, he became a figure of derision, particularly for Arsenal fans who saw him as yet another young player produced to the club who had failed to live up to his billing.
At Real Sociedad, though, Vela finally settled, finding the net 66 times for the Spanish side over a five-year spell. Even then, the Mexican went through prolonged dry spells. At Los Angeles FC, however, Vela has been firing on all cylinders all year. His 2018 season was disrupted by the World Cup, but with no such distractions in 2019 he has been unstoppable. MLS is where Vela’s most profound mark is being made.
Vela has hit such heights this season that he could have joined Barcelona on loan earlier this year. When the Catalans were looking to bolster their attacking options in January, the Mexican’s name was mentioned. The player himself even revealed how close a deal was to being struck. “It was really close,” he admitted in an interview months later. “My second month for holidays, I was there with my pina colada and my agent called me to say ‘look, Barcelona is calling you. They want you to play for four months then you can go back to LA.”
The deal fell through, however, and Vela has kept firing in MLS. Of course, legends are defined not only by the goals they score, but the titles they win. LAFC have picked up the Supporters’ Shield, the first piece of silverware in the franchise’s history, and have MLS Cup in their sights. Vela lifting that trophy would provide the defining image of not just an astonishing season, but a player who has found a place to truly forge his legacy.