If Saturday's Western Conference Final was indeed Carlos Vela's last home match at BMO Stadium, he certainly made it one to remember.
The LAFC legend had his fingerprints all over the 2-0 victory over Houston Dynamo FC that punched the Black & Gold's second straight MLS Cup ticket, which will see them travel to Lower.com Field to meet Eastern Conference champion Columbus Crew on Dec. 9 (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).
Out of contract after the 2023 season and with his future the subject of great speculation, Vela's 75th-minute substitution drew a rousing ovation from the home crowd – an acknowledgment from the LAFC faithful that an era might be ending. For now, LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo didn't turn reflective on the moment's potential symbolism.
"I'm shelving those feelings and emotions until after the Cup Final," Cherundolo said postgame. "And knowing Carlos, knowing Giorgio [Chiellini], knowing a lot of players on our team, they will all do the same in order to raise another trophy and put another star on the jersey."
Vela wasn't among the players made available to media after the match, but his teammates were plenty happy to sing the praises of their longtime captain. Now 34, Vela became LAFC's inaugural signing before their 2018 expansion season when joining as a Designated Player from LaLiga side Real Sociedad.
The former Mexican international stands among the league's preeminent stars, winning 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors behind a record-setting 34g/15a output in 31 games. He's also helped carry LAFC to two Supporters' Shield titles (2019, '22), last year's first MLS Cup crown and two Concacaf Champions League finals.
"I think not just with his offensive actions, but defensively," midfielder Ilie Sánchez said of Vela's effort against Houston. "He took care of both center backs and both defensive midfielders with the help of Timmy [Tillman] and Kellyn [Acosta].
"So, that was huge for the team. He knows, he's aware that we all look at him when things are tough and especially in big games. So, he sets the tone for the team, for the fans, for the atmosphere here at the stadium and we all follow him."
Vela and LAFC now shift their focus to high-flying Columbus, who won a 3-2 extra-time thriller at No. 1 overall seed FC Cincinnati earlier on Saturday. They can accomplish the rare feat of back-to-back league titles, last done by the 2011-12 LA Galaxy, and secure a 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup spot in the process.
Afterwards, Vela's status becomes arguably the biggest storyline facing the Black & Gold this winter.
"Carlos, when you think about LAFC, you think about him," said goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau. "He's the one that drives the team, everybody follows him. He's the first leader since day one.
" ... It's those kinds of details. You don't need words, you just need actions."