Carlos Vela has been a big hit in Major League Soccer, spearheading newcomer LAFC's sizzling attack with seven goals and five assists in just a dozen games. Now he's off to Russia, returning to the game's biggest stage eight years after injury derailed his first trip to the World Cup.
The 29-year-old attacker is a pivotal figure for Mexico, who are looking to advance from a difficult first-stage group – with the first faceoff coming June 17 against defending champions/2018 favorites Germany – and survive a possible round-of-16 showdown with Brazil.
Here are 10 things you may not know about Carlos Vela:
Star at an early age
Vela was widely admired at home, but an unknown elsewhere until he teamed with Giovani dos Santos to spark Mexico to its first world title, at the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship in Peru. The Cancun native, just 16, won the tournament's Golden Boot as top scorer with five goals, the fifth to give El Tri a 31st-minute lead in their 3-0 romp over Brazil in the final.
His ability to finish was impressive, but it was the stylishness of his play, the inventiveness at the core of his game, that caught the eye of nearly every big club around the world. Offers came pouring in, and before the year was out, he'd signed with Arsenal.
A Vela family affair
Vela's father, Enrique, was a semipro player whose career was halted by injury, and he taught the game to his sons. Carlos joined his first team when he was just four, although he wasn't sure that soccer was his sport -- he played just as much basketball -- until he neared his teens.
He was a natural on the soccer field, with exquisite skill and instinct, but the big clubs weren't scouring Cancun for talent. At least not until Guadalajara took a look when Vela was 13. He joined the Chivas academy, and a year later his older brother Alejandro signed a pro deal with the club. They would never play in the same side for the Goats. Carlos was gone by the time Alejandro, five years older, in 2014 made his Guadalajara debut.
Breakthrough in Spain
Vela jumped from Guadalajara's academy to its pro ranks after his U-17 World Cup performance, but he didn't last long with the Goats. Arsenal swooped in almost immediately, and he was off to the English Premier League, where he'd join countryman Jared Borgetti, who had just signed with Bolton.
Except Vela didn't qualify for a work permit and, at 16, wasn't about to crack the Gunners' XI. He went to Spain on loan, first to Celta Vigo – where he didn’t make a single appearance, before finally making it onto the field with Salamanca in the second division and then featuring for Osasuna in the top flight. His quality was obvious.
“He had an enormous amount of innate ability, but above all, he was a boy who had a lot of confidence in himself,” Javi Lopez, his coach at Salamanca, told Sky Sports. “He knew he had weapons for football, and he overcame all the challenges in front of him with relative ease.”
He loves it north of the border
Vela has been massive for LAFC, of course, but he's always had an affinity for the US. He scored his first international goal in Los Angeles – in an October 2007 defeat against Guatemala at the Coliseum – and netted five of his first six on American soil. Nine of his 18 goals for El Tri hit the net north of the border.
Maybe his greatest performance for Mexico was at Giants Stadium in the 2009 Concacaf Gold Cup final against the US. Vela came on at halftime of a scoreless game, fed Giovani dos Santos to create a penalty kick to give El Tri the advantage, scored the third goal, and assisted two more as Mexico romped to a 5-0 triumph.
His first World Cup didn't go as he'd hoped…
Vela was one of the chief figures for Mexico in South Africa eight years ago, but his World Cup ended prematurely. A hamstring injury forced him to the sidelines a half-hour into the 2-0 group-stage victory over France, and he could only watch as El Tri dropped their final Group A match to Uruguay and were knocked out in the round of 16 by Uruguay.
…And nor did his subsequent international career
Vela had been a World Cup starter at 21, had shown off his considerable ability for several clubs in Europe, and was widely thought the most technically gifted of Mexican players by 2010 – the one most capable of pulling off something special, of lifting El Tri to heretofore unseen heights. Then came the Monterrey fiasco.
After a September 2010 friendly with Colombia, Mexico's players retreated to an all-night fête at the team hotel, a party for which Vela apparently played a vital role in arranging. Letting off steam after a match isn't that big of a deal, but word got out about this party – not to mention photos – and it didn't spotlight the team in the best light.
As a result, Vela – along with Efrain Juarez – received six-month national team bans and joined 11 other players with a fine of roughly $4,000. When the suspension ended, Vela was called up for a February 2011 friendly against Venezuela. It would be his last El Tri game for nearly four years.
He stayed away until after the 2014 World Cup
Vela repeatedly turned down requests from multiple Mexico managers to return to El Tri, forgoing the chance to play in both the 2012 Olympics (where Mexico won gold) and the 2014 World Cup. Although it was assumed the incident in Monterrey – and how the FMF handled sanctions – was at the heart of his decision, he's never said so publicly.
In 2012, Vela cited the desire to concentrate on being his best after a move to Real Sociedad in Spain, where he would remain until joining LAFC for their inaugural MLS season. Ahead of the World Cup, according to then-manager Miguel Herrera, Vela told him that “his head just wasn’t in the right mindset.”
He makes great first (and last) impressions
Vela finally accepted an invitation from Herrera before a pair of November 2014 friendlies, and he scored twice in his return to lead El Tri to a 3-2 win over the Netherlands in Amsterdam. That was nothing new.
He netted a hat trick in his first start for Arsenal in Sept. 2008, and fans the following year voted his second strike one of the 50 finest goals in club history.
Vela also wrapped up his European tenure with a goal, coming off the bench to put away a late goal that secured Real Sociedad's 3-1 win in an emotional outing last Dec. 20 against Sevilla.
He was better than Messi
Vela lasted three seasons at Arsenal after getting his work permit, but unable to unseat Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott, he saw little time with the first team. He played in just 29 league games and 62 matches in all for the Gunners, then went on loan to West Bromwich Albion and Real Sociedad, finally finding a home in Basque Country and joining the club on a full-time basis in 2012.
Vela's natural talents fit perfectly at Real Sociedad, and he quickly was considered among the best forwards in Spain's top league. Twice he was selected the team's MVP, and in 2014 he graded better in La Liga than, yes, Lionel Messi. Vela scored 16 goals in 37 league games and 21 in 52 matches of any type during the 2013-14 campaign – numbers that merely hint at all he did for Erreala – and joined Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa as the three finalists for the league's top forwards.
He wants to be in L.A.
Soccer has always occupied an important place in Vela's life, but it's never been the end-all, be-all of his existence. That's a difference he has with so many top players – and something he has in common with Landon Donovan – and it explains why he remained at Real Sociedad for five years even as bigger, better clubs came calling. He called his time in San Sebastian “the best years of my life.”
It's also why joining LAFC, despite naysayers in Europe and at home in Mexico, was so important to the striker. Southern California is northern Mexico to some extent – culturally, in many of the arts, in terms of cuisine and language – and the ability to play so close to home while performing in front of the millions of Mexicans living in Greater Los Angeles was an offer too great to turn down.
“It's my life. And I think it's the best moment to come here,” Vela said when he was introduced as LAFC's first Designated Player last August. “[Those who say I shouldn't come here] don't know about all the time I spent in Europe, the difficult years I spent there. They don't know my life.”
He could have stayed in Europe and played for a big club or returned to Mexico and saw his first action in Liga MX. But he wanted to make a new home with his Spanish-born girlfriend and their infant son, and the best place to do so, he figured, was in El Lay.
“I'm going at the right time, with the desire to try a new adventure, to be close to my country, where my family can visit more often, where I can go home more often, where I've always been drawn to the way they live, the way they let people live, how they think about football and all sports in general,” Vela told Real Sociedad's website. "It’s always been a country where I’ve wanted to live.
“I always knew that sooner or later I'd have the opportunity to live there, try to work there, and the time has come, with the right city and the team with the project I've been looking for, that I've been waiting for.”