EDITORIAL (June 17, 2019) – In a city with Kershaw, Seager, and LeBron. In a city that loves the Dodgers and Lakers above all. In a city with countless actors, hundreds of artists, and dozens of internet influencers, it can be hard to break through. However, that is exactly what the Los Angeles Football Club have begun to do. In the middle of only their second year of on field existence, LAFC are on pace to break every MLS record there is. In addition to their play, they have a legitimate, face of the franchise. Not only an MVP candidate, not just the team captain, but a man who has slowly started to place Los Angeles in the palm of his hands. That man, is Carlos Vela.
Carlos Vela: Los Angeles’ newest, most unknown, sports star
In a lot of a ways, actually, in all the ways, Carlos Vela is more than just the face. He is the face, body, heart, soul, and spirit of not just the club, but the city that surrounds them. The supporters have affectionately dubbed him “El Capitán.”
Once labeled a prodigy, Carlos Vela has seen his ups, and downs on his journey to LAFC front man.
He is recognized as the unequivocal leader. Through 17 games, Vela has 17 goals and 10 assists. His efforts, helping to propel and keep his team atop the league. As surprising as it may sound to some, he was once thought of as doing much more, earlier on in his career.
Carlos Vela stepped onto the world’s stage in 2005 at the age of just 16. He opened eyes when he led the U-17 Mexico team to a World Cup win, as well as winning the Golden Boot. The award for top scorer in the tournament. That performance put him on the radar of plenty of top clubs, with Arsenal coming out the winners, signing Vela to a five year contract.
However, it would be two years before Vela got to see England, being loaned out to teams in Spain while establishing a work permit to play in London. He continued to flash his talent while in Spain, impressing many with his ability to score, and his comfort on the pitch.
At the time of his loan, then manager of Salamanca, Javi López, told Sky Sports, “he was a boy who had a lot of confidence in himself. He knew he had weapons for football and he overcame all the challenges in front of him with relative ease.” From early on Vela’s talents were clear, however, it was never his talent in question.
In 2008 Vela finally made his debut for Arsenal in the most Carlos Vela fashion there could be. As a 19-year-old debutante, Vela netted a hat-trick. After the match, then Arsenal boss, Arsene Wenger, praised the youngster, labeling him the next world-class striker. However, it would be Wenger’s lack of inclusion in the team, as well as off the field issues, that would eventually raise questions about Carlos Vela and his passion for the sport.
Carlos Vela would only make 29 appearances for the London club, despite putting on performances when he was on the pitch. With only three Premier League starts in as many years, and with Wenger continuously alluding to his lack of desire, it was becoming clear Vela was no longer in Arsenal’s plans.
Among the fans, Vela was a mystery. A seemingly great young talent, with the ability, and confidence to do great things. Many wondered why Arsene never gave him a run of games, or why he was never made starter more often.
Over his short time at Arsenal a narrative began. A narrative where a youngster with all the talent in the world, hated his job. Resented making good money to play a game. A narrative that painted Vela as a kid who simply didn’t care about the game of soccer. A narrative, that in 2010, he would unfortunately help fuel.
During September of that year, Vela was suspended for six months by Mexico, for his role in throwing a party after a match. It would mark the beginning of a long, difficult, relationship with the Mexican National team. In addition, it gave people more to hold on to when claiming that he simply did not care about soccer. They had this moment to point to, when labeling Carlos as someone more concerned with life off the pitch, than succeeding on it.
New Beginnings for Carlos Vela
The off-field incident didn’t help ease the mind of then Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who sent Vela back out on loan. After a stint in West Prom, Carlos was sent back to Spain. Arriving at Real Sociedad was, in a lot of ways, the best thing to happen to Vela. Like so many times before, he immediately began to make an impact. During his season on loan he made 35 appearances, scoring 12 goals. Refusing to return to Arsenal after his loan completed, he was eventually sold to Sociedad permanently.
It wasn’t long before he found himself as the fan favorite, cementing an incredible connection with then rising star, Antoine Griezmann. More than the success on the pitch, Vela began to enjoy life off of it.
Able to live quietly, privately and away from the fishbowl life that being a football star tended to come with. That sense of freedom has always been the thing Vela has wanted the most. In a now famous interview he gave with Canal+ in 2014, Carlos Vela put it all out there. Addressing the idea he did not care about the sport and explaining, in his words, who he is.
He explained how he just wanted to live a normal life outside of football. He spoke on his desire to be able to do things other than soccer, when off the pitch. When asked, if on an off day he would watch a game, or a movie, Vela quickly responded with “movie.” He talked about his love for other sports, his desire to be able to express his interests in other things without feeling persecution for it. However, many critics used this interview to only further prove their points.
A New Path
Five years, 184 appearances, and 54 goals later, Carlos Vela was headed for a new adventure. An adventure that would, in a lot of ways, take his journey full circle. It was announced in 2017, Carlos Vela would be joining the newest team in MLS, the Los Angeles Football Club.
For many, the “Vela can’t wait to watch the Lakers and sit on the bench” jokes came all too easy. With MLS still shedding their “retirement home” perception, LAFC were taking a huge risk making Vela not just their first signing in club history, not just the face of the franchise, but the one who would help lead a team of men.
By this time, Vela had begun to show just how much he grew as a person, by patching up tension with Mexico. Making a triumphant return shortly after the 2014 World Cup, Vela played an intricate part in Mexico’s 2015 Gold Cup winning run.
In addition, many LAFC supporters are also supporters of the Mexico National team, making Vela a name many immediately recognized. However, many around the world saw this as Vela finally hanging up his boots. They figured he would arrive, collect a check, enjoy the LA lifestyle, watch some basketball, and grow old. How wrong they were.
Leaving a Legacy
His first season at LAFC, Vela wasn’t asked to lead, or be much of a face. Initially it was Belgian defender, Laurent Ciman, who wore the armband and led the squad. However, that season Vela showed the skill that made him special, scoring 14 goals and getting 13 assists.
During the off-season Vela enjoyed numerous Lakers’ games, traveled back to spend time in his home country of Mexico, and was able to live how he wanted. Not once, did a tabloid mention it, did a fan cry foul, or a coach call it reckless. He was, again, given the freedom to be who he wanted off the pitch.
Which brings us, finally, to now. This season has yet to reach the halfway point and already Vela is by far the best in the league. The aforementioned 17 goals and 10 assists in just 17 games played across all competitions. In addition, Vela has begun to show the leadership skills many thought he would never have, or want.
Yet, here he is. A player many had written off as average, in a league many had written off as dead, blossoming into what he always was. While many would have thought LA the perfect place for Vela to call it quits, its proven to be the best place for him to resurrect himself.
The people of Los Angeles don’t care if you love basketball more than soccer, they don’t care if you spend five hours after a match watching film or Netflix. Regardless of profession, those in Los Angeles have only had one concern, are you doing your job and bringing success?
LeBron isn’t hated because he wants to film a sequel nobody asked for, its because he failed to make the playoffs while doing it. For LA, especially in regards to sports, it’s simple. Win. Carlos Vela may not be the city’s most talked about, or most recognizable sports star, and that’s okay. All he wants is to work hard during practice, kill it on match day, and go home to watch some basketball. And we love him for it.