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LAFC 2021 Player Postmortem: Carlos Vela

Brief resurgence interrupted by injury-plagued season.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at San Jose Earthquakes Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Vela’s 2021 season was a disappointment, with only a nine-game run of characteristically fantastic play.

The latter point is probably forgotten, but one thing that’s been lost in the talk of LAFC’s disaster of a 2021 campaign is they played best when Vela was playing well. When he was out or trying to get into fitness? Well, more often than not they were not good.

Vela came off a somewhat similar campaign in 2020, in which he opted out of the MLS is Back Tournament for personal reasons — which remains eminently reasonable — and then got hurt for most of the rest of the season. By the time he was back, with LAFC in the playoffs at the Seattle Sounders, a lack of fitness and the team missing a slew of players due to a COVID outbreak sunk hopes of a dark horse MLS Cup run.

Unfortunately, it was worse in 2021. Vela has had a history of minor injuries in his career, and after being healthy in 2018 and most of 2019, his fitness appeared to regress to the mean the last two years. In some ways, the turning point of the 2021 season was Vela hurting his quad in the season opener in the opening minutes, trying to sub back in, only for him to get replaced by Bob Bradley.

In the moment, Bradley was right, too much was made of the whole thing. Vela did appear to call for a sub, and then he tried to carry on, and Bradley did what he thought he needed to. Vela was visibly perplexed, but he missed the next several games so he was hurt, actually.

The only really good run was from June 19 to July 28, when Vela scored five goals and four assists in a nine-game span, including goals in four straight games. Only one game in that stretch did he not tally any points, and that was the only appearance in that span in which he came off the bench. In that run, LAFC were 4W-2L-3D. That points pace in that span extrapolated for a full season would have put them comfortably in the playoffs and a home game to boot in the postseason.

And...then he got hurt again and missed nearly the rest of the season. Unable to get back into form before Decision Day, LAFC just could not get their act together well enough and limped to the finish.

Here are Vela’s stats in 2021:

Carlos Vela 2021 LAFC Statistics

2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
MLS 20 15 1,267 5 6 59 18 0 0

On one hand, injuries can happen to anyone at anytime, and teams need to be able to cope with absences on some level. No one really cares if you were going to be the “on-paper” champs, if you can’t back it up in real life.

But it’s obvious that if Vela had been healthy throughout the season, LAFC wouldn’t have missed their best player and probably would have comfortably reached the playoffs yet again. His body of work proves that when he’s healthy and in form, he’s a consistent contributor. To go over the disappointment of 2021 and not bothering to account for LAFC’s legit game-changer being out is a major oversight. Missing Vela doesn’t explain everything that ailed the team, but he could have literally been the difference in the prospects on the season.

If you’re not convinced yet, I bet I can predict your comeback: His heart wasn’t in it! He had no fire and his example filtered through the rest of the team.

Listen, I can’t pretend to get in Vela’s headspace and say definitively whether he was ill at ease or happy as a clam. Perhaps he wasn’t as fired up, and that took a bit away from his potency. It’s possible.

But I’m not sure I believe it, because in the single stretch in which he was truly in form, he was fantastic. LAFC as a team were still grinding like we’ve never seen them before, but Vela was providing the boost, and basically every game, goals or assists. This was midseason, and if he was out of it mentally, like some claim, he probably wouldn’t have been bothered to keep banging in the goals with his team. I just think the old narrative that he is “lazy” is coming back with a vengeance, and I don’t think I agree, frankly. When he was feeling good he was playing good, period.

Of course, the big question now is what’s next for Vela. LAFC picked up the option on his contract for 2022, and there’s been no sign that he’s on board with that plan. He’s under contract, but Vela has enough leverage that if he did not want to play for LAFC he could get out of it. It’s worth noting he hasn’t said publicly he won’t play for LAFC, but this is provisional until we get a sense from him one way or the other. But obviously it’s a somewhat loose end that needs to be tied up before the offseason ends.

I would like to see another season of health and success for Vela, with LAFC, in 2022. But we’ll see what happens for the star after a couple of rocky campaigns.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.