LOS ANGELES – Before he answered reporters’ bilingual questions in a crammed conference room in the California Science Center, before he was lauded by Bob Bradley and John Thorrington for being the player Los Angeles Football Club can build their team around, before club President Tom Penn compared his signing to the space shuttle Endeavour, Carlos Vela laughed.
“Because,” as Vela himself answered when asked about his move to the MLS expansion club. “This is awesome.”
When the 28-year-old Mexican attacker spoke at his introductory press conference last week, the background was a space shuttle and a cryogenic rocket engine.
“He wants to be the center of attention, in the best possible way,” Joe Zacher, president of LAFC’s 3252 Independent Supporter’s Union, told me. “He wants to be the engine.”
And the supporters definitely helped make him feel that way.
In partnership with the club, they threw Vela a Friday night party on a patch of grass in front of what will become their new Banc of California Stadium home.
There, at Vela’s official “Welcome to Los Angeles Rally,” locals and fans threw cornhole, ate popsicles, drank beer, and enjoyed themselves until he arrived.
“He’s just a fun player to watch,” said Luis Orellana, who remembered watching Vela win the FIFA Under-17 World Cup with Mexico in 2005, a tournament the striker finished as joint Golden Boot winner. “He can take guys 1-on-1, he can score. He’s left-footed which makes it even more elegant.”
Orellana oversees Niky’s Sports, his family’s chain of soccer stores in the Los Angeles area. Niky’s has been in the Los Angeles soccer community for 30 years, nearly 10 years before the formation of Major League Soccer.
“It’s really abnormal to have people come out on a Friday and hang out with a player,” Orellana said near the DJ booth. “I can’t remember a time when an MLS player was signed and received at a rally with supporters.”
Despite the festivities in Southern California, Vela’s move has not been without its critics, who were loud enough that his Mexico teammate Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez spoke out in defense of his compatriot’s choice of club, saying, “If he’s happy, I’m happy. Anyone does with his or her life whatever he or she wants to do. He did it for a reason, and I know he'll be happy."
And if his replies at his unveiling were any indication, he sounded as happy as any player can be by joining a club. When asked by the Mexican media what he had to say to critics, Vela cracked a joke and kept it moving. When responding to the inherent weirdness of joining a club without any players, he quipped, “I can play alone if you want.”
And asked about the LA Galaxy’s Mexican international contingent, featuring two close friends, he lit up. “When I come to the pitch,” he grinned. “I just want to kill the Dos Santos brothers.”
That mischievous grin should be familiar to anyone who’s watched Vela play for Arsenal, Real Sociedad, or Mexico. It’s most noticeable after he’s just chipped the 'keeper.
Arguably the blithest way to score, the chip — or cuchara — is Vela’s trademark. He’s bagged famous chip shots as far back a decade ago in the League Cup for Arsenal and as recently as last year’s Copa del Rey with Real Sociedad. He even "micro-chipped" United States keeper Troy Perkins in the 2009 Gold Cup final.
But if Bradley was asked to dig and fortify the tunnel for the club's maiden trek into the league, Vela has been enlisted as the candle to light the way, and judging by their early banter, the relationship has started off well:
That same dynamic is also seen in the ethos the club has fostered with their “supporters-first” announcements, their over-the-top press conferences, and their entertaining cast of celebrity owners.
“In terms of sales, it’s been really good for us,” Orellana said of the LAFC merchandise which he says is flying off his racks. “Every customer that walks in and buys an LAFC tee, hat or, hoodie, they feel like they’re buying something that their being a part of. They’re not just buying a piece of clothing.”
Even more than trophies, supporters say they want to be a part of something fun.
“It’s crazy, but it’s very fun,” Vela said. “I can’t wait to play.”
No player can promise goals. No manager can promise results. No club can promise greatness.
But there's no reason everyone can't have a good time along the way.