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Carlos Vela's leadership has manifested on and off the pitch for LAFC

Carlos Vela's leadership has manifested on and off the pitch for LAFC
LAFC's Carlos Vela, left, is congratulated by Jordan Harvey after scoring his team's fourth goal against Toronto FC on Sept. 1. (Chris Young / Associated Press)

Carlos Vela leads the Los Angeles Football Club with 13 goals and 13 assists, giving him a hand in nearly 40% of the team’s scores this season. That’s the kind of production you might expect from the team’s highest-paid player and the franchise’s first designated player.

But to get a better measure of what Vela has meant to LAFC this season, don’t focus on what happens on the field. Watch what happens at the airport.

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MLS teams use commercial flights and though many reward their DPs with first-class upgrades, Vela insists on a cramped seat in coach instead.

“We go in the back, playing cards,” he said with an impish grin. “If I want to play with my teammates, I have to go with them. No first class.”

It may sound like a small gesture but things like that have had a big impact on bringing the team together said midfielder Benny Feilhaber.

“Carlos is our best player. And guys like that usually have a little bit of an ego and want to make it about them,” he said. “Carlos is zero like that. How can I be egotistical when this guy, who is [twice] the player I am, isn’t?”

The biggest test of Vela’s leadership may come Sunday when LAFC, which has already clinched a playoff berth, plays Sporting Kansas City on the road in a game that could have a huge effect on how long the team’s postseason run lasts.

With a victory, LAFC will become the first expansion team in MLS history to finish its first season atop the regular-season conference standings, guaranteeing itself a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage for at least the next two rounds.

With a loss, LAFC could fall as far as fourth, forcing it to play a wild-card game for a spot in the conference semifinals.

With total victories serving as the first MLS tiebreaker and goal differential the second, here are the scenarios facing LAFC on Sunday:

If LAFC wins: With a victory, second-place LAFC would vault over Kansas City and finish atop the Western Conference standings.

If LAFC and SKC draw: A tie would leave Kansas City atop the table no matter what third-place FC Dallas and fourth-place Seattle do in their final games — but it would also leave LAFC in position to be passed by both. If Dallas wins at Colorado and Seattle wins against last-place San Jose, LAFC would drop to fourth. If only one team wins, LAFC would fall to third. But in either case the team would be forced to host a midweek knockout-round game.

If LAFC loses: With a loss, the only way LAFC can hold on to second place and a playoff bye is if Dallas and Seattle also lose.

“We’re excited,” said Feilhaber, who made five straight playoff appearances with Kansas City before being traded to LAFC in January. “We’ve put ourselves in a position where, if we win, we’re right where we want to be.”

And the selfless Vela has had a lot to do with getting them there. The Mexican national team playmaker was the first player general manager John Thorrington signed in 2017, choosing to build the team around him as much for his attitude in the dressing room as for his skills with a soccer ball.

“I try to be a good example. Because when I was young I saw the older players, the stars of the team,” said Vela, who played on top teams in Mexico, England and Spain before coming to MLS. “Now it’s my turn to be a leader. If you work hard they will see how you have to do the job.”

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Vela, who was named the team’s captain when Laurent Ciman returned to Belgium in August, said one player he’s tried to model himself after is Xabi Prieto, his longtime teammate in Spain. Prieto made 479 appearances for Real Sociedad, second-most ever by a midfielder, because he turned down more lucrative offers to play elsewhere.

“He said, ‘Look, I’m happy. I want to be a part of this,’” Vela remembered. “I enjoyed playing with him.

“That’s my inspiration. In the end when my teammates say ‘this guy is so good,’ I feel better than when they say ‘this guy is a good player and scored four goals.’”

The fact Vela is a good guy and a good player who scores goals isn’t lost on his teammates.

“He sets a standard that everybody kind of abides by,” Feilhaber said. “I don’t want to take anything away from anybody else because I think everyone has been super-selfless the entire year.

“But I think Carlos really sets a standard in that.”

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