I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Los Angeles Football Club have Carlos Vela to thank for reaching the 2020 Concacaf Champions League final.
Yes, it’s a team sport, but Vela has been enormous for LAFC, with five goals and an assist in four games, to reach Tuesday’s big final against Liga MX side Tigres UANL.
In the final, he’ll be meeting his match in Tigres forward Andre-Pierre Gignac, who has five goals himself in the tournament this year.
While LAFC have played and beat three Liga MX sides already en route to the final, Gignac is the first talismanic star they’ll be encountering on their run. Like Vela, he is not only indispensable, he is the best player and heart and soul of his team.
In fact, these two stars have remarkably similar backstories and journeys to this point.
Both men are in their 30s now (Gignac 35, Vela 31), and while Vela burst onto the scene when the Mexico U-17 National Team won the World Cup in 2005 and was a very highly touted prospect who got an early move abroad, Gignac was a homegrown talent in France who was not hyped up as a top player when he was a youngster.
But from there, their paths are quite parallel.
Both players ended up at mid-tier European teams, their clubs capable of playing in the Champions League but equally likely to limp through an ineffective season. But both players were key on those clubs, Vela at Real Sociedad, Gignac at Toulouse and Marseille, scoring regularly but never quite in the mix to be considered very top stars in their respective leagues. Both players were mocked for being considered overweight at times in their youth, and their local press often considered them lazy, which in hindsight seems rather unfair.
After long stints at their respective clubs, both Vela and Gignac moved to North America, in moves that were largely mocked in Europe. Gignac moved to Tigres on a free in 2015, and pushed them to their greatest heights yet, winning four Liga MX titles and reaching now four CCL finals, while becoming the club’s leading scorer all-time. French players in Liga MX are unusual, obviously, and most unusual is how Gignac took to Tigres and the city of Monterrey, becoming an adopted son.
Vela joined LAFC for their debut 2018 season, and helped them establish themselves right out of the gate, making the playoffs their first year, winning the Supporters’ Shield last year, and now reaching the CCL final in their first try. The club’s all-time leading scorer, Vela had a record-smashing season in MLS last year and has helped raise the level of MLS teams in the process. While there are many Mexicans living and working in Los Angeles, like Gignac Vela opted for the road less traveled and moving to the U.S. has paid off in many ways for him and his club.
In fact, one of the parallels for both players is that they have found their greatest career heights to date when they went to countries outside their own, but where they settled in well. Vela’s English is terrific, Gignac’s Spanish is great, and their respective willingness to do what the hell they want, never mind the haters, in their careers has been rewarded.
And it’s reasonable to expect Gignac and Vela to be the central characters in Tuesday’s final. The player who has the most effective game will likely lead his team to victory, even if the other star has something to say about it. It’s not very often that the top stars in Concacaf directly square off for a title, but that’s exactly what Carlos Vela and Andre-Pierre Gignac will do in the CCL final.
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