As LAFC march to the 2020 Concacaf Champions League semifinals on Saturday (10:30 pm ET | FS2, TUDN in US) against Club America, Carlos Vela remains a central figure while MLS chases the elusive continental club trophy.
Vela has scored three of LAFC’s five goals in CCL play, including a penalty kick in the 38th minute of Wednesday night’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over Cruz Azul, jumpstarting a comeback effort that was later capped by a thunderbolt volley from 19-year-old Ghanaian midfielder Kwadwo Opoku.
The one-off game came after Vela scored two goals in LAFC’s inspired Round of 16 comeback over Club Leon, a 3-0 victory at Banc of California Stadium back on Feb. 27. That occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic brought global soccer to a standstill.
Despite the stop-start nature of LAFC’s first CCL journey, head coach Bob Bradley senses an uptick from the 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP.
“Understand that Carlos, from the beginning of the season, was so excited for Champions League,” Bradley said postgame. “Excited to play against Leon, excited to play against Cruz Azul. He's already talking about now Club America. He left Mexico as a young player, so these games against the big clubs in Mexico, he's not had the chance as a professional to play these teams. I also think Carlos is really proud of what we're doing at LAFC and the leadership and role that he has.”
Highlights: LAFC 2, Cruz Azul 1
Vela, 31, has 19 goals in 72 caps for Mexico’s national team and departed his home country in 2005 upon joining Arsenal from Chivas Guadalajara. Stops in Europe extended from the Premier League side to La Liga’s Real Sociedad before Vela became LAFC’s marquee signing when the club entered MLS in 2018 as an expansion team.
But big tests against Liga MX teams never came until 2020, a year in which Vela has experienced plenty of ups and downs. He bypassed the MLS is Back Tournament to be with his pregnant wife, and then suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in their season restart vs. El Trafico rivals LA Galaxy on Aug. 22.
Vela didn’t make his return until late October, and finished with four goals and one assist in seven games (four starts) during the 2020 season. It was a far cry from Vela’s record-setting 34 goals and 15 assists in 31 games a season ago, but Bradley senses that their captain is rounding into form for these high-stake CCL games.
“First game back was Galaxy and he did his MCL and he was out for 10 or 11 weeks, so at one point when we were looking at things and talking about his return to play, he had played 55 minutes in like seven months,” Bradley said. “Great players still need to train and play and train and play. This is how you get the rhythm. Yes, I see him getting closer, but he's still such an important player for our team.”
Vela started on the right wing against Cruz Azul, though also saw time centrally when Danny Musovski was replaced in the 58th minute by Opoku. He was credited with six key passes, per Opta, and attempted a game-high five shots.
There are additional measurable impacts – Vela has three goals and two assists in LAFC’s last six games across all competitions – but there’s also the intangible lift he offers. It factored into a "resolve" that Bradley praised after beating Cruz Azul, where they fought back after allowing an early penalty kick.
That bounce-back ability could prove crucial against Club America, too, where short rest could give way to a CCL final berth. For LAFC, that would mean beating their third straight Liga MX team.
“I'm proud of the mentality and the way guys are growing and competing,” Bradley said. “From the beginning, we always set out to play the best football we can. We try to be good with the ball, we try to create chances. We have good ideas when we lose the ball [of] how to win it back, but to become a really big team you need to take lessons, you need to grow from tough experiences.
“You find different ways to win games and so especially you could see late in the game the concentration, the way guys were constantly talking to each other on set pieces, organizing little details. This part of becoming a better team, maybe this part doesn't come so easy, but hopefully it's something that we can keep building on.”