Carlos Vela has played 72 times for Mexico, taking part in two World Cups and winning two Gold Cups. Yet for all his international success, Vela remains as much an enigma as an icon in his homeland, where he has never played a club game.
Part of that veil will be lifted Tuesday when he leads LAFC into Estadio León for a CONCACAF Champions League playoff game, his first in Mexico in anything other than the tri-colored kit of the national team.
“It’s a game everyone’s been waiting for, the most important game of this part of the season,” León president Jesús Martínez said in Spanish.
“This game is going to draw a very important audience and we’re very excited.”
So is Vela, who left Mexico and the Chivas academy system for Europe when he was 16, beginning an odyssey that would see him play for seven teams in three countries before leading him home again 15 years later.
“Obviously it’s my country. I love Mexico,” Vela said. “I’m happy to have the chance to play there. I hope it’s a great game.
“I hope I score some goals. And I hope we win.”
Those last two things have happened with uncommon regularity since Vela moved from Spain to Los Angeles, where he scored a record-setting 34 goals last season while leading LAFC to the best regular season in MLS history. That earned him an MVP award and his team both a Supporters’ Shield trophy and its first invitation to the Champions League, CONCACAF’s top club competition, where it will face León, the regular-season runner-up in the Liga MX’s Apertura standings.
“For me he’s the best player Mexico has right now,” León coach Nacho Ambriz, Mexico’s captain in the 1994 World Cup, said of Vela. “I admire him as a player. He’s outstanding. In any moment he can swing a game in his favor. At any moment he can make an assist.”
Added León defender Stiven Barreiro: “It was always going to be a special game, more because it’s against a very important Mexican player.”
Vela is clearly the biggest draw in a game that sold out León’s aging 34,000-seat stadium long ago. That’s due in part to Vela’s decision to leave Mexico as a teenager and in part to his complicated relationship with the national team, one that has included six dozen appearances and 19 goals but also two lengthy boycotts, the second one beginning after the 2018 World Cup.
“I hope he will see and feel the pressure of a good Mexican team,” León fan Edgar Picon said in Spanish as he stood on line at the stadium box office last week. “But above all I want – we all want – to see him again with the national team.”
LAFC may have to rely on Vela more heavily than usual Tuesday. Three starters – forward Diego Rossi, midfielder Eduard Atuesta and defender Eddie Segura – missed the entire preseason to international duty although all are expected to be available in León. Midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who has yet to play this winter because of a balky hamstring, is likely out.
Add to that the departure of center back Walker Zimmerman, the team’s defensive leader who was last week traded to Nashville, and injuries to forwards Adama Diomande and Bradley Wright-Phillips, and LAFC goes into its first competitive game of 2020 lugging more doubt than certainty.
León will be without Costa Rica forward Joel Campbell, who underwent surgery for an appendicitis after experiencing discomfort Monday. But the Mexicans are six games into their league season while LAFC doesn’t open MLS play until next month, something that gives León a huge advantage in terms of fitness and chemistry.
LAFC coach Bob Bradley refuses to use that as an excuse.
“We’re excited for the matchup. We’ve said for weeks that León is a really good team,” said Bradley, whose team will be cheered by approximately 1,000 fans who made the trip from Southern California. “The first game away is a really big challenge.”
The teams will meet in the second leg of the two-game playoff Feb. 27 at Banc of California Stadium, with aggregate goals deciding who will advance to next month’s quarterfinals.
For Vela, both matches will technically be home games. And while he said he has nothing to prove in either game, Tuesday’s result will be more important than most.
“I can lose some games but not in my country,” he said. “I want to win so I can say to my Mexican friends ‘Hey, I won in my country.’ I just really want to show how good I am and how my football is because they don’t have the chance to see me every season or [see] my evolution.”
For León and Martinez, the stakes may be even higher.
“It’s going to be a duel to the death,” Martinez said. “There is no tomorrow.”