It started in the 13th minute and Jorge Villafana was the first to bite.
The Timbers left back abandoned his post on the outside line and made a beeline for the approaching LAFC captain as he snaked the ball threateningly with his left foot.
Once he was predictably double-teamed, Vela slipped the ball to Steven Beitashour who whipped it into Diego Rossi. The Uruguayan smacked a shot toward goal and though that effort was saved, Vela guided the ensuing corner right onto Mark-Anthony Kaye's head for a 1-0 lead.
Portland leveled just after the half-hour mark, but not long afterward it was back to the Vela show.
With the seconds ticking down on the first half, the Mexican International took the ball on his left foot and began to dance across the arc as Portland defenders scrambled to close him down. In the end, Vela found Jordan Harvey on the opposite side, who squiggled the ball through to Christian Ramirez. He in turn enjoyed the extra space vacated by the Vela-crazed defenders, sliding in to give LAFC a 2-1 lead at the half.
“I always joke with him that however far he goes, we follow,” said Ramirez after the match. “He’s a good guy off the field, on the field, and you like to play with guys like that.”
By the time Adama Diomande entered in the second half, it was Vela’s turn to provide from a wide position, taking a pass from Latif Blessing and serving it up for Dio to put away his second goal in as many games.
The Norwegian striker returned the favor a few minutes later, playing a through ball into space for Vela who put a bit of his trademark dip on the ball to ice the match with over 20 minutes remaining.
“You can see that his commitment to the team in every situation, chasing back, finding the right moments to come underneath and get the ball, making runs,” said his manager Bob Bradley of the captain’s performance after the victory.
Being able to hurt the Timbers from so many positions on the field and in so many situations, Vela didn’t feel the opponent made any difference on the night.
He was just playing his game.
“Every day I try to be a better player, better teammate, and in the end, I’m working to be the MVP of the league,” said Vela after the match, “If I want to do that I have to show every game how good I am.”
Becoming MVP was a second season goal he stated for himself during his club’s ESPN+ docu-series and one that might not be unrealistic for Vela, given his first year in MLS and what his manager sees in him – not just during contests like Sunday night’s but every day in training.
“Carlos is a fantastic player,” said Bradley in his post-game. “He’s so positive when he shows up and is good with his teammates. Every club has its idea of how it wants to play then you try to create training to take you that direction. You want guys to still enjoy and appreciate training, I think that when your best players come in and know on certain days what training is going to be about and they set the example for everybody, then that’s important and Carlos has done that.”
Never mind that in just two games, five yellow cards have been issued for fouls against him. Never mind that tonight’s performance came against the team that represented the Western Conference in the 2018 MLS Cup only a few months ago.
Nights like tonight are merely what Vela expects of himself.
“It’s my work,” he said. “It’s why I come here: to be the leader of this franchise.”