When the expansion Los Angeles Football Club signed Carlos Vela as its first designated player last summer, the team expected him to become the face of the franchise. What the team might not have expected, however, was for that face to come creased by a smile.
Since debuting with the Mexican national team more than a decade ago, Vela has earned a reputation of being aloof, arrogant, distant and moody. And those are just the polite terms.
But LAFC, which plays the first MLS game in its history Sunday in Seattle (ESPN, 2 p.m.), offered him a fresh start — and it’s a chance he’s happily embraced.
“Completely different person than I would have expected,” said new teammate Benny Feilhaber. “Guys that have had so much success usually have some kind of arrogance to them, a little bit of ego. Carlos is not like that at all.
“The way he brings people together in the locker room, his easy-going nature, he fits in perfectly.”
How that plays on the field remains, like many things with an expansion franchise, a work in progress. But then the game has never been the problem with Vela.
He has long been among the brightest baubles in Mexico’s golden generation, starting in 2005 when he scored a tournament-high five goals to lead El Tri to the under-17 World Cup title. A month later, he signed with English powerhouse Arsenal, beginning a 12-year European journey that saw him score 12 or more goals three times in Spain’s La Liga and play in the Champions League with Real Sociedad.
But there was also an odd three-year estrangement from the Mexican national team, during which he refused invitations to play in the 2012 Olympics — which Mexico won — and the 2014 World Cup. That made Vela a target of scorn at home and his decision to leave Spain for the U.S., not Mexico, didn’t change that.
“In Mexico, they criticize everything,” he said in Spanish. “If you stay, it’s, ‘Why are you there?’ You go somewhere else, same thing. The important thing is you have to go where you’re going to be happy and where you can make things right.”
For Vela, 29, that happy spot proved to be LAFC, which reportedly paid a $6.1-million transfer fee for his services.
“I’m enjoying my new teammates. I think I can show on the pitch how happy I am,” said Vela, who will play on the right side, alongside Marcos Ureña and Diego Rossi, on the front line of LAFC’s 4-3-3 formation.
“It’s a good chance for me to create a great history in the club, in the league.”
That transformation may take a bit longer. Although Bob Bradley is the only coach to take an expansion team to a championship in any of the five major professional sports leagues in the U.S., he said his LAFC team is still coming together after an unbeaten preseason in which it won once and played three MLS opponents to draws.
“We’ve done a number of things that we’re very excited about,” said Bradley, who won the MLS Cup with Chicago 20 years ago. “But I don’t think we’re finished.”
“Chemistry is built slowly,” he said. “But slow and steady. That’s what we’re looking at.”
Adding to that difficulty is the fact LAFC will enter its first game short-handed. Egyptian winger Omar Gaber is out because of a groin injury, while Belgian center back Laurent Ciman might suit up but won’t start after seeing his preseason preparation slowed by a knee injury. Also unavailable is Colombian midfielder Eduard Atuesta, who had to apply for an international transfer certificate and a visa after signing with LAFC last week.
“My starting point is to try to make a good team. Then once you feel like you’re going in that direction, you see what your final goals are,” said Bradley, who wants his team to play an attacking, possession-style game. “In Chicago, I don’t think on day one we were thinking about winning the MLS Cup.
“But at some point, we realized we had a good team. Then we felt like we were a team that could win everything. So it’s a step-by-step process.”
Goalkeepers: Luis Lopez, Charlie Lyon, Tyler Miller
Defenders: Steven Beitashour, Tristan Blackmon, Laurent Ciman, Omar Gaber, Jordan Harvey, Dejan Jakovic, Joao Moutinho, Walker Zimmerman
Midfielders: Eduard Atuesta, Benny Feilhaber, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Aaron Kovar, Calum Mallace, James Murphy
Forwards: Latif Blessing, Rodrigo Pacheco, Diego Rossi, Marcos Ureña, Carlos Vela
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11