The MLS season was just a week old when LAFC’s Carlos Vela laid down a marker.
“I’m working to be the MVP of the league,” he said. “If I want to do that, I have to show every game how good I am.”
That work will pay off Monday when Vela is named winner of the league’s Landon Donovan MVP Award in a vote of players, club executives and the media. A formal announcement is expected Monday morning during a press conference at Banc of California Stadium. It is the second major individual award the LAFC has won this fall after Bob Bradley was last month named the league’s coach of the year.
And while the biggest prize, a MLS Cup berth, eluded LAFC, last week’s playoff loss to the Seattle Sounders can only temper, not erase, a regular season that was the best in league history — for both the team and its captain. LAFC broke the all-time records for points (72) and goal differential (+48) and matched the record for goals scored (85) while Vela set marks for goals (34) and goals and assists combined (49), becoming one of just four players to finish in double digits in goals and assists this season.
That’s a big jump from this first season in MLS when he had 14 goals and 13 assists after joining the team from Spain’s Real Sociedad.
“You know what happened? When you come into a new league, you never know how it’s going,” Vela, a two-time World Cup starter for Mexico, said this summer. “You have to taste the league to really say ‘oh I’m in condition to be the MVP.’
“Last year — first year of the club, my first year in MLS — I felt like why not? I feel like I am better than the rest of the players. So let’s make this happen. And I prepared myself, my body, to be in that position.”
Vela also led the league in shots (160) and shots on goal (71), averaging a score every 80 minutes. It was the greatest offensive season in the league’s 24-year history, and it made him an easy MVP winner over the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic with more than 69% of the vote. Ibrahimovic, who became the third player in league history to score 30 times in a season, finished second with 14% of the vote. Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, last year’s MVP, was third.
“The talent that Carlos has has been just amazing to see,” Bradley said. “I love watching him every day. I’m not going to talk about history; that’s for other people. I just know that when he shows up every day, the smile on his face means that the rest of us smile.”
Bradley was partly responsible for that performance, publicly comparing his captain to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi in an effort to get Vela, 30, to raise his level of play.
“My point to Carlos was just, when you come to MLS, you’ve got to set the bar that high,” Bradley said. “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 was remarkably consistent, scoring in 25 of the 31 regular-season games in which he played and closing the season with goals in each of LAFC’s last nine games, breaking Martinez’s single-season record with a hat trick against Colorado in the finale.
But he couldn’t continue that brilliance in the playoffs. After scoring twice in LAFC’s conference semifinal win over the Galaxy, Vela was neutralized by Seattle in the conference final, managing a weak shot on his only scoring opportunity and making just 23 passes, lowest among starters.
“Nobody expected this end for our season, but we know in the playoffs it’s one game, 90 minutes,” Vela said. “If they make better plays than you, then you’re out. In the end, we have to be proud of what we’ve done all year and learn.
“[But] we have to change some things and get stronger to come back next year and be better. It’s the only way to be a good club.”
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER MVP voting
|Player %||Club %||Media %||Final %|
|Carlos Vela (LAFC)||80.33%||64.65%||63.85%||69.61%|
|Zlatan Ibrahimović (Galaxy)||6.89%||13.13%||22.31%||14.11%|
|Josef Martínez (Atlanta United)||5.90%||8.08%||6.92%||6.97%|
Vela’s record-setting season
Goals/assists combined: 49
Goals per 90 minutes: 1.12
Goal differential: +48
(tied all-time MLS record)