Carlos Vela in a happy place as he transforms LAFC into MLS juggernaut
Carlos Vela is happy.
And why shouldn’t he be? He has a beautiful wife, a healthy 3-year-old son, and the fourth-highest salary in U.S. soccer.
He’s also having the greatest season in MLS history, one that could end with him and his team, LAFC, owning every significant record in the 24-year-old league’s history.
And Vela says his happiness is the foundation on which that spectacular season has been built.
“When I’m happy,” he says with a smile, “good things happen.”
The league Vela joined two years ago has long been a halfway house for aging European players transitioning into retirement. Recently, it’s also become a launching pad for young South Americans just starting their careers.
But you could count the number of fit, in-their-prime international stars who have come to the league on one hand and still have a couple of fingers left over. So when Vela left Spain’s Real Sociedad, at 28, to become the initial signing of a fledgling MLS franchise, the first question was why?
“To be happy,” he answered Friday, hiding in a quiet, shady walkway outside LAFC’s noisy weight room.
“That’s the only reason I made the decision to come to L.A. It’s not only about football; it’s more about life. When you are a player, sometimes, you forget you are a person, you are a father, you are a husband.
“Sometimes, you have to stop your life or your career and say ‘What is the best for my family, for me?’ When I saw all the scenarios that were possible, I said ‘this is the best one. I want to be in that city.’ ”
Twenty-six games into his second season, Vela has made a lot of other people at LAFC happy too. With a league-leading 26 goals and 15 assists, he has had a hand in 41 goals, making him the most prolific offensive threat in MLS history.
Heading into the weekend there were 12 teams in MLS that didn’t have 41 goals, including the cross-town rival Galaxy, LAFC’s opponent Sunday at Banc of California Stadium.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela scores a spectacular goal during win.
Vela is on pace to shatter Josef Martinez’s year-old record of 31 goals as well as becoming the first player in MLS history to finish a season with at least 20 goals and 20 assists. And some of those have been spectacular, such as his second goal in last Wednesday’s game when he dribbled through and around more than half the San Jose team to score.
“I can’t describe a goal like that,” teammate Josh Perez said. “Why not take on the whole team and score by yourself?”
Alexi Lalas, a Fox Sports analyst and former MLS player and executive who has been around the league since its inception, said Vela’s entire season defies description.
“We’re seeing a virtuoso performance,” he said. “To be able to consistently impact the game even when everyone is targeting him or expecting him to do it is amazing.”
Happiness alone can’t account for all of that though. Which is where LAFC coach Bob Bradley comes in.
LAFC's incredible 2019 season
MLS season records in parentheses
Wins: 19 (24)
Points: 61 (71)
Winning percentage: .810 (.750)
Home wins: 11 (14)
Goals: 71 (85)
Goal differential: 46 (record)
An MLS Cup-winner in his first season as a manager in 1998, Bradley went on to guide the U.S. and Egyptian national teams as well as club teams in Norway, France and the English Premier League before returning to MLS with LAFC in the summer of 2017. And a week after landing its coach, LAFC announced the signing of Vela, the player Bradley and general manager John Thorrington built their team around.
“I don’t think we can overstate the impact Bob has had on him,” said Landon Donovan, whom the MLS MVP award is named after. “He has been motivated by Bob and the atmosphere/environment surrounding LAFC and he is thriving because of it.”
Bradley began by pushing his captain, for whom success had often come easy. In his first international competition, Vela carried Mexico to a U-17 World Cup title, the country’s first major international prize, bagging the winning goal in the final to lead the tournament in scoring.
“He’s incredible. He really makes everybody around him better. He’s like a default: When in doubt, pass it to him and he makes something happen. He’s been a handful for every team in the league. He’s no fun to play against, but he’s fun to watch against other teams.”
— Kyle Beckerman, Real Salt Lake captain
He could be brilliant one moment and complacent the next, so Bradley refused to let him relax, showing him video of Lionel Messi and publicly comparing him to the Barcelona standout.
“Part of what we want to have happen here is that we want to find ways to make guys better,” he said. “We want to challenge guys to open up their minds to how they play the game and to get to higher levels and to be more consistent. My point to Carlos was just, when you come to MLS, now you’ve got to set the bar that high.
“I’ve heard him say that when he was in La Liga and it’s Cristiano [Ronaldo] and Messi and other guys, it’s hard for him to think ‘I want to be the best guy in the league.’ But when he got here, I wanted him to think, ‘Look, now’s your chance.’ ”
Vela took it. After scoring a goal and assisting on two others in LAFC’s second game this season, he said at a postgame news conference, “I’m working to be the MVP of the league.”
And he hasn’t let up, leading the league not only in goals but in shots (128) and shots on goal (57) while ranking second in assists. He hasn’t gone multiple games without a goal this season.
And that’s just what he does on the field.
“A lot of his impact happens in the locker room,” LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller said. “He’s honestly one of the best leaders I’ve had because of the way that he carries himself. He knows how to incorporate everybody and make everyone feel welcome as part of this team, which is important.”
Following Vela’s lead LAFC — a league-best 19-3-4 — is on track to break single-season records for wins (24), points (71), goals (85) and goal differential (+41), among other things. If neither Vela nor the team breaks stride over the final eight games, it would be the greatest regular season — individually and collectively — in MLS history.
But it may not mean much if they don’t dominate the playoffs too. In most of the world’s top soccer leagues, the end of the schedule means the end of the season, with the team at the top of the standings declared the winner. In MLS, the league champion is determined in a 14-team postseason tournament, in which luck is almost as important as talent.
“He’s effective. He scores goals, he does assists, and I think he’s at the top of his game now. He’s doing good, and he’s important to his team, and for MLS, he’s very important.”
— Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Galaxy captain
Last year, the New York Red Bulls broke the league record for points in a season but were eliminated from the playoffs in the conference finals, becoming the 13th team in 16 seasons to post the best regular-season record and not win the MLS Cup.
A similar postseason stumble for Vela and LAFC would take a lot of the shine off whatever records they set.
“It’s all about MLS Cup. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t,” Lalas said. “Fair or not, given the dominance of him and the team through the regular season, I think not winning MLS Cup would diminish the achievement.”
Donovan, who won a record six MLS Cups, agreed.
“In the end, winning a championship is the best way to cement his legacy,” he said.
If Vela, 30, thinks about his place in MLS history, he rarely mentions it, preferring to talk about team accomplishments. He’s not even sure this is his best season.
“I don’t know,” said Vela, who had 42 goals and 28 assists in his first three seasons at Sociedad. “It’s different countries, different leagues, different levels.
“But, for sure, I can say I’m enjoying it more this. ... I’m really happy about what I’m doing and what the team is doing.”
There’s that word again. Happy. Galaxy midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, a teammate on Mexico’s World Cup team last summer and a neighbor of Vela’s in West Hollywood, said it’s an honest description of someone who has found a home after playing for seven teams in seven cities and three countries since 2012.
“I’ve talked to him about it several times, and he’s very happy to be here. He likes the city,” Dos Santos said in Spanish. “He’s a great friend of mine and I love him. We know what he can do. He has nothing to prove.”
Aside from his MLS salary of $6.3 million, Vela has shown little interest in cashing in on his celebrity. As a charismatic, bilingual Mexican soccer star in Los Angeles, Vela could be a ubiquitous and well-paid product pitchman. But he’s turned down more sponsorship offers than he’s scored goals, convinced that money doesn’t buy what he wants.
“When you are a player, sometimes you are more worried about ‘Oh, let’s get money. Let’s be everywhere. I want to feel important. I want to feel famous.’ That isn’t my case,” said Vela, who speaks to the media only grudgingly. The one-on-one interview for this story, months in the planning, lasted just 8½ minutes.
“I prefer to have my space, to have time for my family.”
That, he says, brings him as much happiness as anything that happens on the field. And when the soccer part becomes more chore than cheer, “For sure, I will go to the club and say, ‘Look, I have to finish my career because I’m not enjoying it,’ ” he said. “So that’s the key to my success.”
He’s not there yet but says he’s much closer to the end of his career than the start.
“This work,” he said, “is short.”
Can he get better before he calls it quits? Dos Santos, the Galaxy midfielder whose job will be to slow Vela on Sunday, shrugged and smiled at the question.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sincerely, he’s at a very superior level, surpassing everybody. Hopefully, after climbing to that level he will be too tired for the game.”