Last dance? LAFC stars Chiellini, Vela face undecided future


COLUMBUS, Ohio – As if the high stakes of an MLS Cup final weren’t weighty enough, Saturday’s clash with the Columbus Crew (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free) may well mark the last LAFC match for the club’s first-ever signing, Carlos Vela.

The Mexican star’s contract expires at season’s end, and Vela, head coach Steve Cherundolo and co-president/general manager John Thorrington say nothing has been determined in either direction about whether the two parties will agree terms on a new deal this winter.

“With my contract, Saturday is the only thing I know for sure because it's what is there on the paper,” Vela told reporters in a Thursday afternoon press conference at Field. “After that, well, everybody knows, first, I am happy in LA and I am happy in this team. But this job is a business. We know sometimes it's not everything the way you want it. We are two different sides. We have to be on the same page if this can work. We will see in the end.”

While the incumbent face of the franchise sounded of a mind to keep playing even if that path takes him away from BMO Stadium, another LAFC icon, Giorgio Chiellini, must still decide whether he wishes to extend his glittering career for one more year.

He, too, is soaking in every moment of this Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run as if it’s his last as a professional.

“The club is open with me, and gave me the total freedom to decide,” said Chiellini, who turns 40 next August. “I still have doubts. I have to understand what I have to follow – it is my head, it is my heart, it is my legs, and many different calls arrive in the last weeks.

“I think now my focus is just to play. I decide to think about just the game and I spend a lot of time watching Columbus. I don't want to think about it. I think last week I will talk with my family, and try to to understand better what’s next and analyze the issues. So yeah, it could be, it could not be.”

The center back pointed to a torn ACL sustained several years ago which could easily have ended his career, but instead proved a moment of clarity.

“It’s not just about my experience here in the US. Last year, I started to enjoy every day like it was the last day. I understand, especially after I broke my knee at 35 in 2019, that every day is a gift. Everything that happened after my big injury, it’s a gift that I worked so much in order to reach it,” Chiellini said.

“I hope to win one more cup,” he added. “I have learned to win, but I have also learned also to lose many times. But it’s a fantastic journey and I want to enjoy it to the end.”

Vela has been central to the Black & Gold’s identity from the very start; Chiellini is a much more recent but nevertheless highly influential figure. Both sounded philosophical about their situation, albeit in ways that reflected their differing paths to this point.

For both, it’s the game itself that provides the best respite from any nagging concerns about the future.

“I'm not thinking about that. I'm thinking about the final and the big challenge we have to win the trophy and I’m focusing on that,” said Vela. “After that, we will see. We will have time to talk and see if something works. If we don't, everybody will be on his way and we will have good memories and good history together. But life is like that. When one door is closed, another one opens. And so in the end, it is not the end of the world. The only thing that is really important and is the most important for me right now is Saturday.”

Relentlessly, admirably curious and studious about his new North American environment, Chiellini has at times sounded like a footballing de Tocqueville on his MLS adventure. So it was again on Thursday as he marveled at uncertainty like Vela’s, familiar to MLS players but less common in Europe.

“He represents very well LAFC and he's very generous and not selfish in everything. He doesn't need to be the star or to own the shine of everything like a No. 10 and captain and history of this club maybe could be,” said the Italian of Vela. “This is really fantastic [quality] that I discovered in him. He really takes care of the club. We have many players in the same situation, but I understood last year that it is something almost normal in this league, to arrive with the contract expiring and some options to be called until the end.

“We are happy to do it, but I think the thoughts that every player in this situation has is the same as me: Play, enjoy this moment, try to win in the end and from next Monday, we start to think about the future much more.”

Both are legends who proudly charted their own journeys through soccer. Yet while Chiellini’s legacy was already secure long before he left Juventus, Vela’s decision to be a founding figure in an ambitious expansion club brought more scrutiny, with a vocal segment of his homeland’s soccer culture often questioning his commitment to excellence.

Whatever awaits him, Vela has no regrets.

“I’ve spent six incredible years,” said Vela in Spanish. “We've been enjoying it on a daily basis. It's been a very good move for me and for my family and my career. I don't regret at all what I've done for these six years. Today, I have a new opportunity to win a trophy, and it always gives you more joy to look where the team has been headed to. I love to compete – we're competing because at the end of the day, that's what we're looking for.

“I don't know what the next steps are for the next couple of years, whether we work with the club one more year, two more years. It’s all to be decided. We'll work on that, and we'll work to get something together. If not, there will be something else.”