Carlos Vela

LOS ANGELES – Back in 2017, when LAFC were an idea coming to life, conversations began with Carlos Vela about returning to North America. He was playing in Spain’s LaLiga at Real Sociedad, thriving even, in a professional phase separate from the one spent on loans away from English powerhouse Arsenal.

But discussions weren’t about the one-time Chivas academy player returning to Mexico, an El Tri forward coming back to help boost Liga MX. Instead, they focused on the Black & Gold’s vision slightly north, the type of foundational player he could become for an ambitious club joining MLS in 2018.

Vela was convinced to take on the project, putting pen to paper in August 2017 as the first Designated Player in LAFC history. He’d join LAFC that winter via a transfer agreement with Real Sociedad, leaving Europe for Southern California.

Things worked out alright.

“I think what Carlos found appealing, and we need to keep in mind he was doing really well at a really high level with Sociedad in Spain, is the opportunity to do something different,” LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com.

“I think what he saw was the opportunity to be the cornerstone of a club and that is not an opportunity many clubs can offer because most have their history, their legacy. For us, he saw a critical role he would play as that cornerstone piece of the foundation. That sent a signal to the market of what kind of team we want to be.”

Vela hopes to add another chapter to LAFC’s ever-growing fabric, captaining them into their first-ever MLS Cup appearance Saturday at home against the Philadelphia Union (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada). The club, and player, have come a long way since the recruitment phase.

“When I come here, there was nothing around the stadium, even an office,” Vela said at MLS Cup media day. “When I come, I arrive in LA, I was like, maybe there's nobody coming to pick me up. So it was something really weird, but after I met the person, the owners, all the members of the club, I was like, okay, this can be special. We will work to make this special.”

Special indeed, with Vela the undoubted face of LAFC’s rise these past five years. It’s almost hard to put into words what he’s meant to the city, to the club while experiencing it all from the ground-floor level.

“I said from the first day, this club is special,” Vela said. “I want to make the club special. I work every single day to make it.

“This is a really good chance for us, for myself to do something good for them and get something back for fans, for the club, for families, for everybody that's involved in this club.”

Vela’s looking to cap his most productive season since 2019, when he recorded what’s still the most singularly dominant attacking season in league history, posting 34g/15a across 31 matches en route to Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors. This year, he’s put up 12g/11a in 32 appearances to earn his third career Best XI presented by Continental Tire recognition, also re-upping in June on a new DP deal through the 2023 season.

Some of it simply comes down to availability after some injury-limited seasons from 2020-21.

“I think if you look back, whenever Carlos has had a relatively full season, LAFC has done really well – and I think that is not a coincidence,” Thorrington said. “Part of that is us understanding what Carlos needs in order to keep himself healthy, part of that is Carlos himself. And then it's also the coaches managing his load every day and in games, putting him in a position to be successful to help our team.”

Vela, who turns 34 as the next MLS season begins, remains high on the scouting report of any MLS defense. Philadelphia’s is no different.

“Look, we know who their key guys are,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin. “We know who scores their goals. Obviously you can't stop a Carlos Vela for 90 minutes. He's going to find moments in the game.”

Part of Vela’s success has been LAFC aren’t overly reliant on him, and he’ll likely be joined by leading scorer Cristian Arango at striker and fellow DP winger Denis Bouanga on the left. With Vela on the right flank, he’s a savvy creator who pulls the strings for the Supporters’ Shield winners and Western Conference champions.

Set up to succeed, Vela can soon add his biggest prize yet since arriving in Tinseltown during the way-early expansion days.

“He's our captain, and Carlos has come up in big moments for us this season when we've needed him,” said head coach Steve Cherundolo. “He wants nothing more than to win a championship.

“And it's also more than just Carlos, there's Latif [Blessing] who has been here since day one, there's a handful of employees who have been here since day one, and obviously our fans. For all of those who have been in here since day one, this means a great deal to them.”

On the verge of MLS Cup hardware, LAFC’s landmark signing finds some calm amid the storm. He embraces these times.

“We have to enjoy it and of course bring everything, because it's the most important game of this club, so we have to be in that status,” said Vela.