LOS ANGELES -- Last year, when his fellow MLS All-Star — and last season’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP — Josef Martinez broke the all-time, single-season goals record, Carlos Vela lauded the Atlanta United man with compliments.
“Amazing,” he said. A “scoring machine,” Vela called him. “He has no mercy,” said the Mexican attacker.
That day late last summer, with a grin spread across his face and unprompted said: “I hope in the future, I can break [his record].”
On Monday, in front of a room full of reporters, LAFC staff, and his teammates, Vela stood with the same two awards Martinez collected last season — the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi in one arm, the MLS MVP award in the other, after being officially named league MVP. A highlight reel whirred by behind him, showing some of the most impressive moments — 2019’s amazing, no-mercy, scoring machine — on his way to breaking both Martinez’s goal record, and the combined goals and assists record.
Coming in a season in which Vela lifted the Supporters' Shield as team captain, it was a trophy-winning season capped off with a brilliant individual effort throughout.
For John Thorrington, LAFC GM and vice president of soccer operations, Vela’s MVP season was about more than the numbers.
“He had the best season in the history of our league and statistically that’s certainly the case but when you just talk about supporters leaving our stadium and itching and wanting to come back more, and you see the traction we have in our city, a lot of it is moments that might not be a goal but just the way he plays, the way the team plays. We want to just continue to build on that because there is a sense that something special is going on in this building with our supporters, in the community, on the field and we want to just continue getting better every year,” he said.
Los Angeles Dodgers legend Fernando Valenzuela — a player Thorrington watched when he was growing up in the city — was on hand to present the MVP award to the city’s newest sports icon.
“I think it was an awesome tribute to Carlos and testament to the attention he has brought to LAFC on account of his personality and the way he goes about his work,” Thorrington said, of one Mexican sports icon in L.A. giving the MVP award to another.
The work for his stellar 2019 season started during last year’s offseason, something Vela shared during Monday’s announcement.
“When I [workout during] my holidays without my team, I was thinking ‘First time I do that.’ I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? This is work, I have to be enjoying my holidays.’ But after that, when I come back, I say, ‘Something changed in my mind. I have to get that good feelings and put it on the field.’ That was the case, I work really hard all year, and this is just the reward and I’m really happy to make that possible and I hope the next year will be better.”
That’s where Thorrington hopes Bradley and his coaching staff can help Vela maintain his form, the way players like Lionel Messi have in La Liga for years on end.
“The longevity piece of it is the next challenge,” said the LAFC GM. “Carlos is still at a great age, and I am sure that he will performing at this really high level for a number of years.”
LAFC head coach Bob Bradley, for his part, felt Vela’s outstanding 2019 has the potential to push him not just to the same heights, but potentially even beyond them.
“It’s being able to know that a year like this year, which was so special, that if he continues to work in the same way, that he can do this again,” said Bradley. “When you have a season like this, your sense of even how much more you can accomplish, it grows.”
The 2019 MLS Cup would have been played at Banc of California Stadium this weekend had the Seattle Sounders not came through to spoil those hopes for LAFC last week. Monday’s press conference was the first time many players and staff had returned to the stadium since last Tuesday’s Western Conference Final defeat but it was already clear how the club would use that loss as fuel for next year.
“[Vela] loves whats going on in the club,” said Bradley. “Like all of us, he knows that we're only two years in and we certainly have not accomplished everything, that’s the part that we focus on every day.”
And so, although the sting of the playoff loss is still fresh, the 2020 MLS preseason is just around the corner and this year’s MVP is already looking forward to it.
“This trophy just makes me more hungry,” said Vela. “Next step is to be champion.”