The hardest thing for ‘star’ players to do is take what could be perceived as a lesser role. All you have to do is look at the Los Angeles Lakers and Russell Westbrook. It's been the number one story since his arrival, how will he handle possibly taking a back-seat for the first time in his career? That answer has been: not great, and it’s shown in the poor record of the city's premier NBA franchise. However, for LAFC, not only have they seemingly convinced their biggest star to take a slight step back, it's proven to be the best thing for the team overall.
It's no question, Carlos Vela is the biggest star of LAFC. He’s El Rey — the king — he’s the captain, he’s the undisputed face of the franchise. Yet, I can promise most of you read that last line with a thought, however brief, that perhaps that isn't the case anymore. I’d wager most of you thought of Chicho Arango, and the mountain of goals he’s scored since his arrival. You wouldn't be totally wrong for thinking that either. When compared to past seasons, this is the first time we’ve seen a full-health but less-aggressive Vela. Over the course of the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Vela played a total of 27 matches as he dealt with some injuries that kept him off the pitch a lot of the time.
In 2022, he’s featured in 32 regular season matches — the most since arriving at LAFC — with 28 starts. The last time LAFC had a year like this was, you guessed it, 2019! That year Vela finished the league MVP, had an outrageous 34 goals, 15 assists, with a whopping 160 shots.
Despite the injuries the last two years, LAFC tried to keep using Vela as the focal point of the attack. Often at the detriment of overall success, having to lean on him at all times. Then came Arango, who is probably still scoring goals as this is typed. His immediate success had many eyeing the Vela contract situation midseason even more, with some thinking it spelled the end for the Mexican in Los Angeles. However, Vela re-affirmed not only his commitment to the team, but his commitment to doing whatever he had to do to ensure an MLS Cup was brought to LA, even if that meant taking a step back.
All players, especially professional ones, are capable of saying all the right things. Very few actually go out and show it. Carlos has done just that this year. Despite notching more appearances for LAFC this year than ever before, Vela has done something this year that he's never done before in the MLS. Something that shows just how committed he's been to putting the success of the team over his own. For the first time, Vela finished an MLS season having created more scoring opportunities, than shots taken. Essentially, he's been the facilitator far more than needing to be on the end of every attack.
Now, he still had a tremendous season individually. He finished the regular season with 12 goals, 11 assists and had just 61 shots. He’s still very much the goal-scoring threat he was in his MVP season, only now, he's not the team's only option. Much like Michael Jordan had to do in the early days with the Chicago Bulls, Carlos Vela has learned to trust his teammates. He's perfectly content passing it off to Arango, or a young rising star in Mahala Opoku, for goals. So long as the end result is lifting trophies, and so far this season, it's been a lot of that. More than ever before, actually.
After beating their rivals in the playoffs for a second time, LAFC were able to stay locked in and Vela was able to once again do all he could to get his side into their first-ever MLS Cup Finals match, as he set up the first two goals in the Western Conference Final win over Austin FC. Now, the team are just days away, just 90 plus minutes, from achieving what they set out to the day they signed Carlos to the club. It’s the big moment. Center stage.
It's the exact moment you'd expect a huge performance from someone like Vela. Maybe a wonder-goal from midfield. Or scoring a first half hat-trick. Just don't be shocked when we get neither of those things. As much as we may want to see one more vintage Vela performance, he’s shown all season that he will come into Saturday with only one goal in mind: doing all he can to help LAFC lift the MLS Cup.
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