Carlos Vela spread his arms in celebration and the entire stadium broke into applause, not only in the sections on the other end that were overtaken by LAFC’s traveling fans.
The goal that completed Vela’s first hat trick in Major League Soccer was the latest breathtaking technical maneuver performed by the Mexican attacker, a 27-yard shot curled inside of the far post with his left foot that was as carefully placed as it was downright powerful.
“I still have more,” Vela said with a boyish smile Saturday in the wake of LAFC’s 5-0 demolition of the comically overmatched San Jose Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium.
Vela has served as a foundational player for 2 -year-old LAFC, providing a link to the coveted Mexican and Mexican American markets while leading the offense-minded team on the field. What LAFC has offered the 30-year-old Vela in exchange is a chance to redefine how the public knows him, granting him the necessary platform to counter the long-standing accusations that he lacks passion.
A veteran of two World Cup tournaments who was once known in his home country as talented but indifferent is now defined by his bold ambition.
Vela wants to be the league’s most valuable player this season.
He declared the aspiration earlier in the season and restated it again Saturday.
“I’ve always worked to be the best player,” he said.
He explained how in the seven seasons he played for Real Sociedad of the Spanish league, his contemporaries included the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“It was impossible to be the best,” Vela said.
Here, it’s entirely possible — if he isn’t already the best, that is.
The three goals Saturday raised his MLS-leading total to six. He also registered his third assist on Diego Rossi’s 68th-minute strike. First-place LAFC’s record improved to 4-0-1.
Vela had 14 goals and 13 assists in 28 games last year, which was enough to earn him a place on the MLS Best XI team.
“I’m trying to be the leader of the team,” he said this month. “That is why I come here, to be a leader for this franchise. I’m working on that every day. I’m working to be better, to be a better player, a better teammate. In the end, I’m working to be the MVP of the league. If I want to do that, I have to show every game how good I am.”
Coach Bob Bradley has supplied some light-hearted motivation, occasionally showing Vela video clips and telling him he could play like that.
“There’s two guys that I have shown Messi clips and said, ‘Look, this can be you,’ ” Bradley said after LAFC’s season-opening victory over Sporting Kansas City. “It’s Carlos and it’s Mohamed Salah.”
Salah, whom Bradley coached on the Egyptian national team, is considered a top-five player in the world.
“I think I’m right on both of my choices,” Bradley said. “So, yeah, Carlos, he’s sick of it, but he’s going to keep hearing it.”
At the time, Vela said with a chuckle: “We know Bob. Sometimes he’s crazy.”
Asked Saturday about using Messi as a measuring stick, Bradley said, “Look, I'm not stupid. Messi's the best player I've ever seen in my life. But Carlos needs to be challenged at the top level. He gets it.”
And he has responded.
His first goal Saturday was a gift from the Earthquakes, as goalkeeper Daniel Vega kicked air on an attempted clearance outside of the penalty box in the eighth minute, allowing Vela to walk the ball into an empty net.
Vela increased LAFC’s advantage to 3-0 in first-half stoppage time, beating left back Shea Salinas to the top of the six-yard box, from where he buried a cross from the right flank by Rossi.
The 1,000 or so LAFC fans seated in a corner of the stadium started to chant his name: “Car-los Ve-la! Car-los Ve-la!”
“Instead of just coming back for every ball, he's found a really good balance between being on the move more and I think as a team we've done a better finding ways to get him moving forward and that’s very important,” Bradley said.
Vela completed his hat trick in the 66th minute.
While Vela spoke openly about what he wanted from this season, he was more guarded when asked about his possible place on the Mexican national team.
Mexico’s new coach, former Atlanta United coach Tata Martino, didn’t call up Vela for the team’s exhibition games this month. Vela said he recently spoke to Martino but claimed their conversation had nothing to do with soccer.
Asked whether he would accept a call-up from Mexico, Vela replied, “I have to speak with Tata. You never know.”
LAFC wouldn’t mind if he didn’t. The less he plays for Mexico, the more he figures to play for LAFC and the better his chances of being recognized as the league’s best player.