LOS ANGELES — Though he’s been in the United States for less than two years, Carlos Vela has developed a fondness for playing at Rio Tinto Stadium. He scored his first goal in MLS — a trademark cheeky chip — during LAFC’s 5-1 victory in its second-ever game. The Black & Gold also have a perfect three victories in three at Real Salt Lake's ground — including two 2-0 victories in both the U.S. Open Cup and the league this year, with Vela scoring in both.
The most recent goal, however, might live to be a particularly long-lasting memory as it gave the Mexican sole ownership of an important record.
While it’s true Vela and fellow MLS All-Star Josef Martinez have wrestled the majority of offensive headlines across MLS the last two seasons in their pursuit of various goal scoring records — with the Atlanta United man extending his consecutive matches scoring streak to 11 over the weekend —front and center, has always been the single season goals record (something Martinez has even said he “hopes” Vela breaks).
The Atlanta United man set a new bar with 31 just last year and LAFC’s captain is in a position to break it in the 2019 campaign, currently sitting on 24 goals through 25 games for LAFC.
But somewhere in the midst of all the goalscoring, that other record — for combined goals and assists, with Vela breaking it with a combined 39 — nearly got lost in the shuffle. If you ask Vela, that’s bizarre, because in his eyes, it’s a better record to break.
“I think for me that record is more important than just goals,” the Landon Donovan MVP candidate told reporters after he tied it against the New York Red Bulls earlier this month. “Because in the end, I’m not a striker, I’m not just scoring goals, I’m not always just in the front waiting for the ball.”
That Vela isn’t an out-and-out striker like Martinez, that the weight of goalscoring at LAFC was never designed to solely fall on his shoulders, makes his breaking of that record — which he did with an emphatic spot-kick Saturday night at Rio Tinto — all the more impressive.
But that’s not to say Vela’s assist abilities have gone unnoticed on the league leaders.
“It never gets lost on any of us,” Bob Bradley told MLSsoccer.com last week. “I don’t know why sometimes the attention goes just in a single way toward a record or just goals. Carlos is a complete player. When you look at the best players, you see everything that they do on the field, so he’s capable of scoring great goals, he’s a team player, he sets up other guys.”
To that end, it should come as no surprise that each one of Vela’s other nine regular outfield companions this season has been on the score sheet at least once, with defenders Eddie Segura and Jordan Harvey the latest to add their goal tallies, both thanks to Vela assists.
“I’m trying to involve all of my teammates,” said Vela. “I’m trying to help them, I’m trying to make some plays for them. So that’s more important because I like to make assists, too.”
In many ways, Vela’s attitude toward the record is indicative of the way his club itself has viewed the many historical markers they’ve set themselves up to beat with their breakout season. Whether it’s goal difference, total points, goals scored, wins, or any other metric, what the team has focused on its being the best comprehensive versions of themselves.
After Vela broke the record Saturday he did deflect a lot of praise onto his teammates, whose solid play this year has even put him into the position to break the record, but it was goalkeeper Tyler Miller who reminded reporters of a figure that deserved some of the credit as well.
“Carlos is a very special player,” said the LAFC goalkeeper. “I think Bob has done a good job of challenging him to raise his game.”
For Bradley, meeting those constant challenges that his system poses for players has been difficult for all players, Vela included.
“I would also mention throughout the year how hard [Vela] has worked and how he, when we lose the ball, has really done a big job of helping us start a counter press. You can tell he’s committed in all ways towards what we do as a team and that’s the reason that he’s our captain and our leader," he said.