“El Rey,” LAFC forward Carlos Vela, made his long-awaited, highly anticipated return from injury earlier this week, when he came on as a sub, against the Seattle Sounders. While he only saw about 15 minutes of action, it was clear, everyone was happy to have him back.
"He's been such a huge part of what's gone on here since the beginning. Everybody looks up to him for being a leader, for being a captain, and for being a great guy." - Bob Bradley— LAFC (@LAFC) October 27, 2021
Welcome back, King. pic.twitter.com/IBirnDwAqc
Vela has been the subject of the always churning rumor mill, over the past few months with regards to his contract status, and his future with LAFC. Vela made waves during the MLS All-Star Week, when he not only revealed he would consider a move back to Europe, but also mentioned he was on the last year of his contract with the club. LAFC Co-President and GM John Thorrington, has remained adamant, even as recently as this past Tuesday, that the club maintain an option on the star forward, that would theoretically keep him for at least one more season. But as we know in sports, especially the modern era, when a player of Vela’s stature wants to move, they tend to get their way.
However, this isn't an article about ‘will he, or won't he return’ or the drama that could come at the end of the season. As of now, there are no indications that either side is preparing to play ‘hard ball’, and Vela himself was on a recent Instagram Live talking about his commitment to winning an MLS Cup with LAFC, and some of the players he was trying to recruit to Los Angeles. Instead, this is an exploration of the expectations we all should have, in the event he does indeed return for the 2022 season.
Vela is still viewed, by many, as the savior for this club. When asked why the season has been the struggle it’s been, one of, if not the first response, is always some variation of ‘well we haven't had Carlos available’. It’s true, missing one of your biggest goalscoring threats can cause the team as a whole to suffer. However, even now, as he returns, many fans expect him to make his mark and lead the team into the final playoff spot. They expect him to be the driving force behind any run to an MLS Cup not just this year, but for the future. Should they though?
At age 32, Vela isn't old, but he certainly isn't the youngest anymore. Add to that, he's suffered a major injury that's bothered him and kept him out of action for the better part of two seasons. To expect a return to the 2019 Vela, that netted a league record 34 goals, dished out 15 assists, played 31 matches and won league MVP, might be too much. And that's okay.
This isn't to say we won’t see the odd magical performance where he dominates a match, or comes up with clutch in a big moment, but to expect it for an entire season, at this point in his career, might be a bit much. For many of us in Los Angeles, we remember Kobe Bryant and his last few years in the NBA. After a brutal Achilles injury in 2013, Kobe played just three more years, retiring in 2016. Those years in-between, we all knew he wouldn't be the same. He was no longer the guy who could lead an entire team on his own to the playoffs and ultimately an NBA title. He couldn't get 40 points a night at will anymore. That didn't take away from his greatness. And it didn't stop him from dropping 60 points in his career finale, at the age of 37.
What really hurt the Lakers was that they were never able to bring in another player on his level, that could help carry a team with him in his final years. A problem that LAFC have had, until recently. But 26-year-old Colombian Cristian ‘Chicho’ Arango came to the team in the middle of the season, and has not only settled in well, but stepped up. In just 15 games he’s scored 13 goals, a modest 2 assists, but more importantly, has sparked a recent run of form that helped turnaround the season for the club. He has, at times, carried the team to victory, and has come in clutch when needed the most.
Vela, unlikely Kobe, and more-so like LeBron James, has help now. He has a true equal that can not only score, but seemingly do so at will. A person who can shoulder the load, take over matches, lead the team, and help this team achieve the ultimate goal of a championship. Vela no longer needs to score 30 plus goals for this team to find success. It’s time we stop expecting it from him.
It's time we, as well as the team, accept that while Vela is an important piece to the puzzle, he isn't the entirety of it. This pressure he has, to be the reason this team wins it all, has to stop. His not being available can't be the reason for this team not finding success, not anymore. So as the king returns to his throne, my hope is that he leans on the army around him. Instead of rushing to the front lines, lead from the back, put trust in those around you to help you find the success you crave. As has been proven, it’s better to see him consistently, even in a somewhat limited role, than to have the kingdom go long-term without El Rey.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!