LOS ANGELES – For all his devastating finishing on the field, the Carlos Vela that graces the media during interviews and scrums is never one who seems to take himself or his job more seriously than it needs to be.
On Wednesday, with a crescent of reporters curled around him, he was at it again.
When asked about LAFC’s recent road win over Houston, Vela cracked the kind of joke that showed his coy side. The 30-year-old didn’t appear in the 3-1 victory, the first time that’s happened all year.
“I was really happy and enjoying the bench, seeing my teammates do really well and thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t play the next game, I have to train more’,” Vela joked.
Cheekiness aside, keep in mind that Vela has scored 19 goals and handed out 12 assists through 19 league games this year. He’s on track to steamroll the lion’s share of single-season MLS records.
So it’s a bit bizarre to hear Vela joke like that, amidst a season like this, in a city like Los Angeles, ahead of a game of this magnitude.
That “next game” Vela alluded to is none other than El Trafico, which will see LAFC travel to face cross-city rivals LA Galaxy on Friday night (10 pm ET | ESPN, TSN2 — Full TV & streaming info). Head coach Bob Bradley knows how important the Designated Player will be.
“I think all of us overall felt good about our team last year, but we were disappointed in the way the season ended,” Bradley told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “Everybody was very motivated to build on the first season and that number one example, every day, in that regard, is Carlos. Motivated, more comfortable as a leader, and we’ve seen his level of play go up and up, so he makes people better. He’s been dangerous, he scores goals, he sets up goals, so in all ways, he’s been amazing.”
Veteran defender Steven Beitashour had similar complimentary things to say about his captain.
“Carlos has something I noticed different, that (he came with) a little bit more of a killer mentality, where he gets in front of goal and its either a goal or an assist,” Beitashour said. “I feel like last year, he had as many chances as this year and he would kind of miss and be like, ‘OK, whatever it was a difficult opportunity, you don’t expect someone to make all of them.’ This year, he’s making all of them and everyone’s just blown away by it.”
So, what has sparked this change from Vela? As the Mexican star sees it, his team is just better.
“For me it’s easy, because I don’t have to come back to take the ball, dribble [past] a couple guys,” Vela said. “So now I have to just focus in my moment and wait for the good pass from my teammates and then I score goals. That’s easy for me, because I have more energy in the perfect moment and I’m enjoying it.”
In 2019, much has been made of Vela’s pursuit to break Josef Martinez’s single-season goal-scoring record (31), as well as his quest to win the Landon Donovan MVP Award. But everyone inside LAFC seems to have clarity on their focus.
“[Carlos] says it all the time that this is just the journey that we are going to get MLS Cup,” said Beitashour. “I think everyone wants to score goals, but I think winning trumps everything."
When the first two captain’s in LAFC history — Laurent Ciman and Benny Feilhaber — left before the start of 2019, questions were asked about who would wear the armband and how they would lead the second-year side.
Vela’s been able to lead by emphatic on-field example, lift up his teammates, spur the spotlight without shying away from publicly-stating bold goals, and prioritize the success of the group.
In turn, Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta and Lee Nguyen have sparked the midfield. Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande and Christian Ramirez have helped Vela lead the attack. Beitashour, Jordan Harvey, Walker Zimmerman, Eddie Segura, Tristan Blackmon and Mohamed El-Munir have led the backline. Tyler Miller and Pablo Sisniega have both been up to goalkeeping tasks, too.
If that sounds like every regular-appearing player, it’s because it is. And they’re players Vela trusts in El Trafico's and beyond.
That leadership was apparent in last week’s win over Houston, as television cameras caught Vela late in the game, off the bench, delivering instructions and encouraging his team in a neon penny.
This is the Carlos Vela of 2019.
“The team showed it’s not only Carlos Vela,” the LAFC captain said of that night. “We are more than that.”