In the beautiful city of Cancún, Mexico, on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, Carlos Alberto Vela Garrido was born to play the beautiful game. Widely considered one of the finest footballers to represent his nation, Vela has developed into a supremely gifted footballer and the face of modern football in North America. LAFC’s undisputed leader and captain, the 31-year-old forward shoulders the load of not just his title-contending club, but an entire league as well.
Now into its 25th year of existence, MLS has never been more popular and the league is flourishing, with Vela leading the way.
The reigning MVP enjoyed a remarkable 2019 campaign, scoring 34 record-breaking goals en route to winning the highest individual honour a player can be bestowed in the league. Vela’s goals set a new single-season MLS record but he contributed 15 crucial assists as well. LAFC’s talisman richly deserved the award and fans of the Black and Gold can rightly tout their prolific Mexican winger as one of MLS’s finest.
As an Arsenal fan, my abiding memory of Vela harks back to his time spent in North London. For years he was one of the brightest talents in the Gunners’ stable of young prospects but cruelly denied an opportunity in the first team by pesky work permit restrictions.
In 2008/09 he finally had his breakthrough and made his first start for Arsenal in a League Cup third round contest against Sheffield United under the lights of the Emirates Stadium. Vela put on a show in a 6-0 rout of the Blades, with the youngster bagging an impressive hat-trick. Flanked by prodigies such as Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Nicklas Bendtner, it was Vela who shone brightest with three well-taken goals, including an audacious chip that would become his trademark finish.
If I mentally picture a Vela goal in my head, it is always a chip. It is the cheekiest of all the goals, total humiliation for stranded, helpless goalkeepers. And Vela loved them.
Perhaps my favourite of Vela’s cheeky chips came against Burnley in a fifth-round FA Cup tie that same season. Andrey Arshavin on the left-wing plays a ball into Vela’s path and his first touch is an outrageous nutmeg of centre-back Clark Carlisle. The veteran defender hops into the air with a little skip after seeing Vela sail past him, a physical reaction to the embarrassment dealt out by the young Mexican. With a clear path to goal and the Burnley defenders in full retreat, the composed Vela makes no mistake with his next move, floating an effortless left-footed chip over the onrushing ‘keeper. Magnífico.
Unfortunately, Vela’s career at Arsenal didn’t quite live up to expectations and he couldn’t establish himself in Arsene Wenger’s squad. In August 2011 a loan move to Real Sociedad was agreed that became permanent a year later. His time in England had come to an end but his career in Spain was just getting started.
In San Sebastián, Vela developed a lethal partnership with a young Antoine Griezmann and together the pair blossomed in the Basque Country. With regular playing time and an established position on the right-wing, Vela became a goal and assist machine for La Real, scoring 73 goals and recording 44 assists in 250 appearances over six seasons. In 2014, Vela reached new heights and was ranked alongside La Liga’s elite by being named to the league’s best XI, alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Of course, he never lost his propensity for chips. La Liga goalkeepers shuddered at the thought of a solo Vela bearing down on goal.
One of his best came in a 2-1 victory over RCD Espanyol in 2016/17; sent clear by a defence-splitting pass, Vela used his electric pace to create separation from his marker. At the edge of the box, Vela stabbed his left boot under the ball, creating enough spin and height to carry it high over the goalkeeper, mired in no man’s land. The technique required to score such a goal is astounding.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, LAFC were paying attention and they liked what they saw. Vela’s feats in Spain were enough for the expansion club to make him their marquee signing prior to their maiden season in MLS, and the first Designated Player in club history. It was a show of faith that has since been rewarded, significantly so.
On the pitch, he’s delivered in abundance but off it, you could argue Vela’s impact has been even greater. His personality and appeal in a city and state containing a large Latino population made him the ideal player to build and establish a strong supporter base. The ‘Vela effect’ isn’t isolated to Los Angeles alone; his move to MLS helped garner attention around the world but especially across the border in his home nation of Mexico. Vela’s immense success in LA has helped transform the league’s image. No longer considered a retirement home and final payday for former superstars, Vela and his peers have shown MLS to be a truly legitimate and competitive league.
Which brings us to the opening weekend of the 2020 MLS season. It’s Vela’s 31st birthday and his side is hosting David Beckham’s expansion team, Inter Miami CF. It’s the first MLS fixture of their fledgling existence and Miami start brightly, with Vela’s compatriot Rodolfo Pizarro impressing on his debut.
Half time is approaching and Vela’s seen enough. The upstarts are threatening to spoil the party so he takes matters into his own hands. Vela chests a loose ball over his defender, breaking inside from the right channel, charging towards the penalty box. He calmly shrugs off the attention of two more defenders, now drifting towards the left side of the penalty area, still outside the box. Vela evades one more defender with the slightest of feints and spots Miami goalkeeper Luis Robles six yards off his line.
It’s all the space Vela needs.
With inch-perfect precision, he uses his left foot to dink the most delicious lob over Robles. The ‘keeper backpedals in vain but Vela has calculated the attempt with scientific accuracy. The ball hits the net, the crowd go crazy, and Robles finds himself captured in his net like a fluorescent crab caught for tonight’s supper. Vela’s wonder chip is the only goal of the game and LAFC secure the opening day victory, all three valuable points safely in the bag.
It’s clear to see that Vela is supremely comfortable in his Southern Californian home; the perfect weather, the relaxed lifestyle, a team built around him and everything he needs close to hand. What more could he ask for? A championship would be nice, certainly. No longer the league’s new boys, LAFC have serious title ambitions this season, and Vela’s goals will go a long way towards achieving them.
Now is the time to tune in, sit back, and enjoy what the MLS, and Vela in particular, have to offer. Naturally, he’ll be inclined to include a few more trademark chips along the way.
He can’t help himself and we love him for it.