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LAFC 2018 Player Postmortem: Carlos Vela

Designated Player put in a pretty, pretty good first season in MLS.

Los Angeles FC v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Carlos Vela was the first big splash signing by Los Angeles Football Club. For years, the desire for MLS teams to get a bonafide star had been there, but the market realities and ambitions of said stars hadn’t. But when Giovani dos Santos made the jump to the rival LA Galaxy in 2015, it opened the door for a newer caliber of Mexican star in the league, and LAFC pounced on the opportunity.

Vela was in some ways a perfect fit for an expansion team in Los Angeles. Not yet 30, he was an attacker, a silky smooth forward with a varied skillset. Handsome, fluent in English as well as Spanish, he seemed like the kind of marquee idol the Designated Player rule was made for.

Of course, the reasons why Vela was available and not playing for one of the biggest teams in the world were there, too. Vela had famously started his career at Arsenal, but a combination of work permit issues in England and Arsene Wenger not ever giving the youngster a chance in London meant he never settled there. Like Gio dos Santos there were rumors that Vela partied hard, didn’t treat his body right. There were the tabloid rumors in the Mexican press that led to his being suspended by El Tri, causing a rift with the FMF that took years to heal.

Even at the club where Vela finally settled, Real Sociedad, all was not perfect. There was the time he reportedly failed to show up to training after going to a Chris Brown concert the night before. He sometimes looked overweight, too.

So a move to LAFC was not without its risks to LAFC. To go back to Gio dos Santos again, aside from a stint in 2016 when he was red-hot, he’s really never been very good for the Galaxy, and has often been bad, when he hasn’t been hurt or on international duty. His contract now seems like an albatross that organization is trying to get rid of.

But with the whole of the 2018 season in the books, it’s hard to regard Vela’s debut season at LAFC as anything other than a success for the player. He was an MLS All-Star, an MLS Best XI selection, he finished the season as captain. All with the midseason distraction of the World Cup.

I get the feeling that a lot of the bad press around Vela comes from his unwillingness to play ball with the Mexican press, with their reaction to punish him as stuck up, ungrateful and unwilling to remember his roots. That, and probably a solid dose of immaturity, led to a poor rep for the guy.

He showed up to preseason in shape, having come off a half-season at La Real where the manager didn’t bother to play him much after signing a deal to leave. And for a press-shy player, he took the mantle of the marquee idol well. He even admitted in January that he knew he would need to be more public in the United States, and he was willing to do that, and he did it well.

Even the reputation on the field that Vela carried, of a player who didn’t like football and often floated through games, a flighty personality who couldn’t really take over games, was largely washed away. I wouldn’t say Vela was a born leader, but he showed in multiple games — the road win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, the first two El Traficos, before the defense collapsed in those games, among others — that he could, in fact, take the game by the scruff of the neck and make a definitive impact for his team.

And I think a game that was really instructive of Vela’s determination was the U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss in Houston. LAFC fell short on penalties in that game, and while Vela scored his penalty, it wasn’t his finest hour — Diego Rossi was the would-be hero on that night, with a hat trick that should have been more than enough to advance.

But Vela played the full 120 in that game, and he was suffering from cramps or a knock. His socks were uncharacteristically slumped, he was limping for much of the second half and extra time, but he carried on. Vela may have a lightweight, “pretty boy” reputation, but digging in and trying to find a win to send his team to a cup final, even when he was struggling, showed me that he was all-in on this project with his team.

Vela LAFC 2018 statistics

2018 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2018 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
MLS Regular Season 28 26 2,378 14 13 97 44 1 0
U.S. Open Cup 2 2 210 1 0 5 1 0 0
MLS Playoffs 1 1 90 0 1 5 1 1 0
Total 31 29 2,678 15 15 107 46 2 0

His production was there, too. A 15-goal, 15-assist season across all competitions is Best XI-worthy, even if the expectations for Vela were sky-high. He was eighth in the league in goals and 10th in assists. He played a direct role in about 40 percent of LAFC’s regular-season goals, and that’s with missing five games in the summer while he went to the World Cup, where he also scored, by the way.

All in all, you can’t really complain about Vela’s first season. The big question, of course, will be: What’s next? Can Vela keep playing at a high level next year?

I think that is a valid question. The motivation of the World Cup might have given him that extra motivation, and while he hasn’t said he’s retired from El Tri, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s done with the National Team. He seems to love life in Los Angeles, maybe he will love it too much and take his eye off the field?

It’s possible, but while it’s worth considering, I think we have to take him by his example. Vela showed that he cared about playing well and he met the expectations. The job isn’t done yet, as LAFC have yet to win any trophies, and hopefully that spurs him on. But for a supposedly flawed superstar joining the club, Vela has yet to put a foot wrong, and we should all give him the benefit of the doubt, for now, and possibly for good. Don’t be surprised if he’s working to build his ultimate legacy, with LAFC, and will meet his own expectations in the end. If that’s the case, he could become a true legend for a brand-new team.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!