The calendar says Carlos Vela is aging. But you wouldn’t know it from watching him play.
Vela celebrated his 31st birthday Sunday, making him six years older than MLS, the league in which he plays. Yet he hardly looked like a man whose time is running out, with his first-half goal giving LAFC a 1-0 win over Inter Miami in its regular-season opener.
“Carlos’ magic,” teammate Jordan Harvey said, “really came through for us again.”
That’s hardly new. Ninety minutes into his third season, Vela’s 49 goals and 28 assists have given him a hand in 77 MLS scores in 60 games, more than any player in league history over a similar span. And that doesn’t even count the two goals he scored three days earlier in a win over León that sent LAFC on to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
“Carlos is still such a special player,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “He still has speed, he still has power. He’s going to be able to continue doing that for more years. There’s no question about that.”
It’s Carlos Vela‘s birthday and he’ll score if he wants to, score if he wants to pic.twitter.com/VLUk2p5tzd— L.A. Times Sports (@latimessports) March 2, 2020
He did it again Sunday despite the fatigue of playing two full games in four days. Despite the pressure that comes with being the reigning league MVP and single-season scoring leader. Despite the focus that came with David Beckham’s first game as an owner, the game with Beckham’s expansion team drawing a national television audience, a visit from MLS commissioner Don Garber and a sellout crowd of 22,121.
But withstanding that pressure is not the only way in which Vela is an outlier on an LAFC team that gave nearly 42% of its minutes to players under 24 last season, the highest percentage in the league. General manager John Thorrington doubled down on that strategy this winter, allowing three players over 30 to leave and replacing them with four who aren’t old enough to buy a beer.
That made Sunday something of an old-timers’ day because with Bradley rotating his starting lineup, aging goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, 34, and defenders Harvey, 36, and Dejan Jaković, 34, also played big parts in the win.
“If you embrace what’s going on, if you come in every day and you push yourself in training, then it’s possible you can keep guys moving in the right way,” Bradley said.
Vela’s goal certainly kept LAFC moving in the right way, upping its home record to 23-2-10 in three seasons. And the score, in the 44th minute, was nearly as spectacular as it was important.
The sequence started with Vermeer sending a goal kick from the edge of the six-yard box straight down the middle of the field, where it bounced twice before Diego Rossi volleyed it forward to Vela. The LAFC captain chested it down, sliced between two Miami defenders toward the top of the penalty area, fought off a physical challenge from Nicolás Figal, then lofted a left-footed chip off the fingertips of backpedaling Miami keeper Luis Robles, who wound up tangled in the back of the net.
It was a highlight-reel goal. But for Bradley it felt like a rerun of something he sees every day in practice.
“Just an amazing goal,” he said. “When you come to see football and then the game is determined on a play like that – a combination of determination, people around him, strength and holding guys off and to finish it off with that delicate chip, man that was just incredible.”
And Vermeer made it stand up, surviving a nasty head-to-head collision with Miami’s Alvas Powell early in the second half to pitch a shutout in his first MLS start, securing the win with a sprawling stop on Lee Nguyen seven minutes into stoppage time for his seventh save of the game.
Then it was on to the birthday celebration for Vela, who rushed home for a piece of cake with his family.
“Carlos is a very quiet person,” said midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who was in grade school when Vela signed his first professional contract. “So I don’t think we wanted to bring any more attention than he already gets. But yeah, we all definitely wish him happy birthday and we’re glad you got that goal too.”