Herculez Gomez has been following the career of Carlos Vela since the summer of 2007 when both men made their national team debuts, Gomez for the U.S. and Vela, then a teenager, with Mexico.
In all that time, Gomez, now a soccer analyst for ESPN, has uncovered one existential truth.
“With Carlos, it’s about him being happy,” he said. “When you look at his history with his playing career and his relationship with the media, when he’s most successful on the field is when he’s been happy off the field.”
Vela was decidedly unhappy Friday, waking to make an early morning phone call to cancel a scheduled interview. The LAFC team he captains had lost for the first time this year two days earlier, falling to 6-1-1, and he had no appetite to talk about his start to the MLS season, one that sent him into the weekend leading the league in both goals (eight) and assists (five).
The incident speaks volumes about Vela, 30, and the leader he has become. The 1-0 loss Wednesday night in Vancouver wasn’t his fault; he had played well, nearly stealing a game-tying score in the closing minutes. But the team — his team — had lost, so there was nothing to celebrate in his personal performance.
The interviews would have to wait until after Sunday’s home game with the Seattle Sounders (5-0-1), the last remaining unbeaten team in MLS.
“There are different ways to lead. Everyone’s personal leadership style needs to be genuine to that person,” said John Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president of soccer operations. “The genuine leadership style from Carlos, he’s our best player, right? But what engenders him to the group is his humility.
“He is so incredibly talented, but he doesn’t want to be treated as though he’s incredibly talented. He just wants to be treated as one of the guys. The message that sends all throughout our roster is a really positive one.”
It’s one of the reasons Thorrington signed Vela in the summer of 2017 and made him the foundation of a fledgling franchise.
“There were a lot of criteria that went into the decision,” Thorrington said. “Obviously, the on-field characteristics were important. What always struck us about Carlos was why he wanted to come to L.A. It directly aligned with what we wanted from our first designated player.
“He was very motivated to do something different and special and impactful in the community and the city and the league. That was the perfect marriage of what we were hoping for. We continue to reap the rewards of that.”
Rewards such as 22 goals and 18 assists in 36 games over the last two seasons. A playoff appearance and MVP nomination in his first season — for which he was well-compensated with a $6.29-million salary that ranked third in the league last season.
“He’s without a doubt shown he’s one of the best in the league. Probably at the moment the top three in the league with Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] and [Wayne] Rooney,” Gomez said. “It’s been fun to watch.”
There’s a darker side to Vela, one that also fits LAFC. To the world outside the locker room, he can be moody and aloof. Angry about a six-month suspension from the Mexican national team following the 2010 World Cup, he refused to play for his country for three years, declining call-ups for the 2012 Olympics and 2014 World Cup.
Near the end of his six-year stint with Real Sociedad in Spain, he missed training for two days for what he said was an illness, only to have photographs surface on social media showing him at a concert in Madrid, which earned him a benching and a fine.
“One of the things that LAFC has going for it is this cool swag demeanor where it’s almost good to be bad,” Gomez said. “It’s black. It’s sleek. It’s very Hollywood.
“When you get Carlos Vela, you no doubt get one of the more talented players — in my opinion, the most talented player — in the Mexican pool. But you kind of get a rogue, a renegade. And I think that’s very much LAFC.”
What LAFC might not be getting is Vela at his best, which is more a testament to his past than a criticism of his present. In his third season in San Sebastian, Vela had a career-high 16 goals and 12 assists in 37 matches, making him the only player in the Spanish league with a dozen of each.
That was also where he met his wife, Saioa Canibano, a former journalist and the mother of the couple’s 2 1/2-year-old son, Romeo.
“There were only two players that stood out over Carlos Vela. That was Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi,” Gomez said. “He was the man there.”
Now he’s the man here, leading by example and persuasion. On LAFC’s commercial flights, he’ll trade in his aisle seat for a cramped middle one if it gets him in a row with a teammate. And on the pitch, he chides and consoles but rarely loses control.
“He makes everybody like him. He’s never going to be in your face yelling at you,” forward Christian Ramirez said. “We’ll go as far as he takes us. He knows that. That’s something that he’s accepted.”
Vela has also proven the perfect talisman for coach Bob Bradley’s complicated, pressing style, and the two have bonded. Vela appreciates Bradley’s cerebral, no-nonsense approach to the game, and the coach has reciprocated by challenging Vela to get even better, constantly comparing him to Messi, perhaps the greatest player of all time.
“There's two guys I've shown Messi clips to and said, ‘Look, this can be you,’ ” Bradley said. "Carlos and Mohamed Salah. And I think I'm right in both of my choices.”
But the coach has also rewarded Vela with the captain’s armband and by giving him space to be himself away from the field. And that has brought out the most important emotion in Vela.
“In Los Angeles, he’s found a place where’s extremely happy,” Gomez said. “No one’s ever questioned Carlos Vela’s talent. It’s other things. Maybe that mentality: I’m not one of that group.