LOS ANGELES – There are so many common threads linking Carlos Vela and the man whose name adorns the honor the Mexican striker picks up Monday following one of the most glorious campaigns – perhaps the most glorious – in Major League Soccer's 24 seasons.
There were other deserving candidates for this year's Landon Donovan MVP Award, Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the archrival LA Galaxy most of all. But there was never any doubt that the trophy would go to Vela, not after scoring a record 34 goals and assisting 15 more as LAFC romped to the Supporters' Shield, setting records all the way.
It was a mesmerizing campaign, on the heels of his tremendous debut in 2018, and that's not just about the numbers. Vela has been a treat to watch, a splendidly skilled attacker with superior vision and instinct playing with uncommon verve and grace, streaking or snaking past defenders to curl the ball into the net with that impeccable left foot – in 25 of the 31 games he played, with LAFC 17-1-7 when he did so – or feed a teammate for the finish.
He's the heart of what LAFC has become and – in arguably the finest regular season in MLS history – achieved. He is the unmistakable icon, the one whose statue will one day sit at Banc of California Stadium's entry plaza.
That sounds a lot like Donovan, even if David Beckham got first call on the statue in Carson. He, too, was the golden boy, the one with the speed and the skill and the intelligence and the derring-do to make occur things that usually don't.
Vela is perhaps more akin to the former US star than the 22 previous winners of the award – absent Donovan, who captured it in 2009, of course – and not just in what he does and how he does it, but more fully in how he approaches the game and where it fits within his life.
There are certainly similarities in their games. Both like to attack from wide but are comfortable inside as a second forward or attacker, have the pace to outrun defenses and the quickness to find the sliver of space necessary to utilize their sublime skill. Both can see things others can't, coupled with the ability to make use of that advantage. And both possess a nose for the net but a selflessness that makes creating for others as joyous as completing the task themselves.
Their stories align to a point. Both were young phenoms recruited to Europe in their teens – Donovan for an unhappy stint at Bayer Leverkusen, Vela for seven years (and five loans) at Arsenal – widely considered, with good reason, the most talented players of their generations in their countries.
Both struggled to find happiness early in their careers, then blossomed once they did and became integral figures with their national teams, Donovan more so. Both found their best game in MLS, with Los Angeles teams, and both prospered under Bob Bradley, Donovan most memorably with that last-second winner against Algeria at World Cup 2010.
Donovan spent most of his career in his native California, first as a young spark to two San Jose Earthquakes championships, then in his prime and as veteran statesman closer to home with the Galaxy. He retired with a record five MLS Cup titles and as the all-time leader in goals – an honor Chris Wondolowski wrested away back in March – and assists.
Vela hasn't called home home since leaving Guadalajara's academy for Arsenal in 2005, when he was 16. He floated from club to club on loan, finally found a home at Real Sociedad in La Liga, and was there for close to seven years before LAFC came knocking two years ago.
Where they align most greatly is in how they see the game within their lives.
For Vela, soccer is just part of a greater whole. It's what he does, and he loves it, but it's not who he is, and he's made that clear. That's a pretty apt description of Donovan, too, and one that's far from common among the game's elite players.
It's been a breeding ground of controversy for both. Donovan's desire to showcase his skills in MLS, closer to his family, and especially his twin sister, rather than seek to climb among Europe's biggest clubs was seen among his critics as a lack of ambition, a hesitance to pit himself week after week against the best the world has to offer. He was excoriated when in 2012 he took a four-month break from the national team to rest and refuel, a decision that may well have deprived him of a fourth World Cup in 2014.
Vela, too, has come under attack, for not getting more from his ability, for not taking a greater role within Mexico's national team as others with far less skill do so, for a seeming nonchalance about the game and his place within it. And for miscues – a party that led to a six-month El Tri ban, pretending he was ill to skip out to a concert – that seemed unseemly. For not giving every inch of his heart.
He, too, stepped away from the national team, after the September 2010 suspension. Four times and for various reasons, mostly personal and most recently for last summer's Concacaf Gold Cup, he turned down invitations to rejoin the team, missing out on Mexico's gold-medal triumph at the 2012 London Olympics and the World Cup two years later.
It's who they are.
“People miss the point,” Landon Donovan said about his critics. “I just want to be happy. ... I could be [in Europe], and I could be successful. But I would never come close to being as happy as I am here [in Southern California]. No matter how much better it might make me, it would never be worth it. I don’t have to deal with all the BS.
¡ELOGIOS! 🇺🇸🤝🇲🇽— Analistas (@_Analistas) October 12, 2019
“Lo que ha hecho Carlos Vela en LAFC es increíble, ya tiene el récord de más goles en una misma temporada en la historia de MLS, vamos a ver lo que hace en playoffs, pero, para mí, es el mejor jugador de la temporada"
- Landon Donovan para ESPN pic.twitter.com/vA1Hf3ZTnR
“In Germany I saw guys – Bulgarians, Croatians, Brazilians – who would come to training, go home and just be miserable. They’d have nothing to do. I would never want to be that way. There's more to life than soccer.”
More to life than soccer? That could be Vela talking.
He was asked about his success with LAFC just before the playoffs began and whether he could do such things with a big club across the Atlantic.
“Of course, I think I could play in important teams in Europe and be an important player,” he said, “but at the time everything happened [with my move to MLS], I needed or I thought it would be best for career to come here. I think today, the result I was looking for is happening.
“It's a bit of what I've always said, to try and look for the best for my life and my family, and I'm here. The rest is out of my hands.”