Q&A: LAFC’s Carlos Vela answers tough questions in rare tell-all
The last year has been tough for everybody and LAFC captain Carlos Vela is no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic struck at what was the start of a difficult pregnancy for his wife, Saioa, leading Vela to skip the MLS tournament last summer in Orlando. Then 57 minutes into his first game back, he tore the MCL in his left knee.
After a 2019 season in which he scored an MLS-record 34 goals and won the MVP award, Vela played in just seven games in 2020, the fewest in a season since he left Mexico for Europe as a teenager.
That makes this season a crucial one for Vela, 32, who recently sat down with Times soccer writer Kevin Baxter for a rare one-on-one interview, which has been edited for clarity and space.
How was your offseason?
It was great. I had a great time with family. I had some rest for my body, for my [mind]. And everything is going well. I feel ready for a new season.
The injury you had last season was the worst of your career. How is the knee now?
I feel ready. I feel 100%.
How difficult was 2020, not just with COVID-19 but with the injury, skipping the MLS Is Back tournament and your wife’s pregnancy?
It was a hard year not only for me, I guess ... for every single person in this world because it’s something like we are not used to. I couldn’t travel with the team to that Orlando bubble. I got the injury, so I never got the rhythm of the of the season. I never felt 100%.
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Did you learn anything from that?
Yeah, I think when you have hard moments in your life, you always grow up, you always learn something. So in that part I feel stronger than last year. I have a good mentality. So I want to enjoy every time I can go to training with my teammates. I hope we can play with fans and families can come to watch the games. That is extra motivation for a player. Yeah, I see everything much better. And I feel it will be a good year.
Any second thoughts about opting out of Orlando and the quarantine bubble while your wife was pregnant?
No, honestly, I feel I did the right thing. Because in the end football, yeah, I love to play, but it’s my job. The most important [thing] for a person in this life is the family. If they need you there, you have to be there. And the rest is a second page. I am really glad that the club helped me and understood the situation and supported me. Of course, when you see the games, see your team is losing or we didn’t win the championship, you feel like, ‘Oh, maybe if I was there, we can win the title.’ But it’s something that we will never know. So we have to look forward.
Speaking of looking forward, when you joined LAFC you said you wanted to win an MVP. You did that. You wanted to lead the league in scoring. You did that and broke a record with 34 goals. What are your goals now?
I will fight for the MVP again. Because if I think in that way it will be good for the team. When you play good, you do good things, the team is also doing good things. Everything is going in the same direction. So my individual goal is to make the MVP. For the group, the goal is to win the championship. Two years ago, we won the Supporters’ Shield. So we are doing the right things. But we are still missing something.
If you look at how many times LAFC wins when you score a goal, it’s pretty indicative of your value. Are you the best player in MLS?
Maybe. I don’t know. You have to answer that question. I work hard to be the best. So after that it depends what the opinions are. But yeah, I feel I’m doing well. I feel like if I work hard and if I work in a good way, I’m close to being the best. And like I say, it’s my goal to be the MVP again.
You’re a big NBA fan and you admire LeBron James. What have you learned from watching him?
Everybody can see how hard he works. He’s 36 and he’s still the best. So he prepared his body, his mental work, to the highest standard. Every time he comes to the court, he wants to be the best, he wants to win. So it’s a good model for all the young guys — for any sport. If you want to be the best, you have to show up every day and you have to work really hard. You have to prepare your body, you have to not only talk, you have to show how good you are every time you have the chance.
Basketball is your favorite sport, at least to watch. And you were a pretty good player. Do you wish you had stayed with basketball?
With my height (5 feet 10), it was not helping things. I feel like I made a great choice because I have other things. I’m grateful I have this life. Football helped me to be a better person, a better guy. I met people around the world, I had the chance to live in different cultures. Of course, you always have dreams. You always want to do something you’re not involved with every day. But it’s not because I’m unhappy. I like to watch [the] NBA. But in the end I know I have to be a football player. It’s not like I want to change my job, change my sport. When I work I have my mind focused on football so when I go home, I want to disconnect and try to see different things. That’s helped me. When I come back to training, I have energy. It’s not like I’m not tired of my job.
Have you met LeBron?
No, not yet. I hope.
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You aren’t playing with LeBron but you are playing with Diego Rossi. You were the captain and led the league in scoring in 2019, and Diego was captain and led the league in scoring last year. That’s never happened before, two different Golden Boot winners from the same team in consecutive years. Who’s going to be the leader this year?
Diego and I, we have a great relationship. He’s young, so I feel like I have to show the way; how he can play or how he can be a better player. Diego has to go to Europe so I’m trying to teach him. I can say, ‘Look Diego, you are doing well, you’re a good player. But come on. You can be better and you have to go to Europe and show there you are good.’ So I don’t think Diego is thinking like, ‘Oh I have to beat Carlos.’ [It’s] how he can learn from me or how I can teach him to be a better player — and, of course, myself to just keep going, keep getting better. We’re in a different situation. That’s why I don’t feel like we are fighting.
You played in Mexico with Chicharito and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, with Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri at Arsenal. You played with Antoine Griezmann at Real Sociedad. So who’s the best player you’ve ever played with?
That’s a hard question. One of the guys I always say was crazy good — and I never played with him, but I was training with him — was Dennis Bergkamp. Everything he did was like, ‘Wow!’ Every time he touched the ball it was like magic.
Your coach, Bob Bradley, talks about what a leader you are. Not just on the field but in training, the way you come to the facility every day and you’re upbeat and you encourage guys. Is there somebody from earlier in your career that you try to emulate as a leader?
No, I never tried to copy anybody because in the end every person is different. Every single player has a different mentality, a different way to show how good they are or how they approach [things] so it’s impossible to be like some player. You have to be yourself. You have to be open. I’m always there if somebody needs something from me. We’re going to spend one hour, two hours, three hours, doesn’t matter. Come to me and ask me, I don’t have any problem.
You got your green card last year. Your daughter India was born in October in Los Angeles. Your close friend and neighbor Jonathan dos Santos of the Galaxy, he said he wants to stay here when he retires. Do you want to stay in L.A.?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m open for everything. I think the most important [thing] is who you are with. If I have my family close, if I feel I have a couple of friends, it doesn’t matter where you are. Doesn’t matter if it’s America or Mexico. I’ve always said I want to be some day in Australia. I’ve never been in Australia. I don’t have friends there but maybe we’ll live in Australia in a few years. We never know.
Last question — and I saved this one for last because I know you don’t like talking about this. But are you done with the Mexican national team? Next year is another World Cup year. Are you thinking about going back or have you closed that door?
Well, honestly, I don’t think about that. I just focus on being at my best level. To score goals, make everything for my team. And after that, we never know.
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