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LAFC 2022 Player Postmortem: Carlos Vela

Yep, he landed the bleepin’ trophies.

MLS: MLS Cup Championship-Philadelphia Union vs Los Angeles FC Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Vela returned for his fifth season with LAFC in 2022, his future initially uncertain, and his career at a crossroads of sorts. But it all ended as we hoped, with his future committed to the black-and-gold and the captain lifting the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

First, it’s interesting to note that Vela’s initial contract with LAFC was scheduled to expire in the summer of 2022. I’ve been covering MLS for over a decade, and I had never previously heard of any player, much less a Designated Player and superstar of the league, on a contract that would expire during the season. I suppose Vela’s star power extracted that unique contract clause, although LAFC have replicated it with Gareth Bale’s contract, but I think you can also make a case that Vela threatening to leave LAFC in the middle of the season, even while they were leading the league, may have given the club that extra nudge to pull out all the stops and make sure they were as strong as possible to win the double, which they did. In other words, Vela’s responsibility in this historic season may amount to more than just his on-field performances.

Burt his on-field performances were good, too. After two seasons in which Vela was often hurt or managing injuries while playing through them, he was largely healthy this year, and you may be surprised to learn he missed just two games all season across all competitions. And while he was capable of still making fireworks with his goals, he fully embraced a playmaker role for the first time in his MLS career, and has likely got the blueprint to play the rest of his tenure for LAFC that way.

Here are Vela’s competitive stats with LAFC in 2022:

Carlos Vela LAFC 2022 Statistics

2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
Regular Season 32 28 2,333 12 11 61 26 2 0
U.S. Open Cup 3 1 76 0 1 1 0 0 0
Playoffs 3 3 252 0 3 10 2 2 0
Total 38 32 2,661 12 15 72 28 4 0

Vela’s 12 goals + 11 assists in regular season play was the 8th-best G+A mark in the league in 2022. It’s far off his record-breaking 2019 peak, but anyone realistic understands he was not going to approach the lofty heights of 2019 again on a personal level. And while he still could score timely goals, hitting double-digit goals and assists for the third time in his career in MLS is a mark of his consistency. He was also a reliable, though not singular, option for LAFC’s attack, second in scoring on the team behind Cristian Arango and leader in assists.

Vela’s advanced stats were strong, as usual. His Goals-added mark from ASA for 2022 was +2.28, 18th in MLS among outfield players and third on LAFC for the year. Similarly, his FBref.com scouting report graph showed he continued to outperform his expected goals mark by a considerable distance — possibly restoring the balance a bit after a terrible 2021 season for LAFC was extremely unlucky according to the underlying numbers.

FBref.com

Here’s some of the highlight goals of the season for Vela. First, a piledriver where he gets trucked by a Minnesota United defender after unleashing it:

Here’s his hat trick performance in the season opener against the Colorado Rapids:

It’s nice that each goal in that hattie became progressively more impressive.

And here’s an underrated classic, Vela’s patented curling finish after cutting inside, to pave the way for LAFC to win their second Supporters’ Shield.

But as I mentioned, I think Vela aged gracefully into a slightly new role in 2022. Bob Bradley did a good job of motivating Vela to be locked in, and in 2019 in particular, it worked gangbusters. Vela proved over his first four seasons in MLS that he actually does care about winning, the book written on him that he’s aloof to the point of really not giving a damn about what happens in soccer games was totally bunk.

But I suspect that while Vela was negotiating his second contract with LAFC this year, he also explicitly said he needed more help. He was proud to carry the team over the years, but he saw that even supreme talent from one individual is not always enough to win the trophies. I think he was comfortable enough in his own status to accept that he could share the spotlight, and instead of getting visibly pissed off at being subbed out of games like he had in prior seasons, he understood if he wanted to stay healthy for the big games, he needed to manage his minutes.

It’s an underrated factor that in the MLS Cup final, shortly into the 30-minute extra time period, Vela exited the game. I think he had given everything he could, and the player who replaced him in the moment was Gareth Bale. If Steve Cherundolo had swapped Vela out for any other player on the roster, would Vela have been accepting of the turn of events? Maybe not. But I think he respected Bale and believed the Welsh star could grab the game and make the game-changing play if he came off. And that’s what happened — even with Vela off the field, Bale scored the all-important equalizer in the 128th minute, and LAFC’s other players held their nerve in the penalty shootout. In giving up some of his hold over the team’s fortunes, Vela empowered his teammates to step up, and in the biggest moment, they did. The trust was finally reciprocated.

So Vela finally climbed the summit with LAFC in 2022, winning the double, and he seems excited to keep pushing on. He’ll turn 34 just after the 2023 season kicks off, but I definitely think if he can stay healthy, he can still produce at a high level for a couple more years. With Concacaf Champions League on dock next year, it would be great if LAFC could make a run at that again, and we know Vela would love to beat a few Liga MX sides en route to another trophy. But it was another terrific season for Vela in 2022, and we are very fortunate we’ve been able to watch him find personal and team success in his tenure with the black-and-gold. Long may it continue.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.