LOS ANGELES – Few expected the offseason to come so early for LAFC. By Monday’s MVP press conference, the players of the 2019 Supporters’-Shield winning, record-setting roster had no more games to play at Banc of California Stadium, no definitive reason to be wandering the guts of downtown LA’s soccer cathedral. But there they were.
They filed onto the stage one after the other. There were key starters like Diego Rossi, Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eddie Segura and Jordan Harvey; key reserves like Danilo Silva, Dejan Jakovic, Pablo Sisniega, Peter-Lee Vassell, Josh Perez and Diego Palacios; and players that didn’t feature regularly in 2019 like Javi Perez, Lamar Batista and Phillip Ejimadu.
They stood beside Carlos Vela as he heaved his two trophies — the Golden Boot and 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award — in his arms and joked with his teammates as the vied for position.
“The fact that guys, fresh in their offseason, where these guys are thinking about everything but the past season, [it shows Vela] has the support of his teammates,” said John Thorrington, almost in disbelief afterward. “I think that just speaks volumes about that additional piece of what he added this year.”
That piece the LAFC GM is referring to can be explained with one small symbol: the captain’s armband. It's something that when Vela arrived in MLS, he had never worn regularly as a professional.
But head coach Bob Bradley and his staff pushed him to meet those responsibilities.
“They make me see everything in another way, make me work every day to be better, and the most important, they try to make me be the leader,” Vela said of the Black & Gold’s coaching staff, which also includes Mike Sorber, Ante Razov, Kenny Arena and Zak Abdel, in addition to the performance staff.
Vela might not have expected to be a team leader right away, but it was something Bradley identified as the club moved from their debut season to their second campaign in MLS.
“In a team, there’s different kinds of leaders, but it’s really important that your best player plays a big role,” said Bradley, “and those were the kinds of challenges that I think helped Carlos see what a good leader he could be, what a great leader he could be.”
Thorrington agreed, believing that the systematic approach by the club in choosing their first captain, and how things evolved, shaped their trajectory.
“I think the staff made a really wise choice initially,” the GM said, alluding to Laurent Ciman and then Benny Feilhaber, the club’s first two captains last season. “There’s some teams where you take your best player and you make them your captain and without giving much more thought to it.
“But I think it was a really deliberate sequence of events and an evaluation of the makeup of the roster and the group when that transition happened. It was natural and, in some way, has led to Carlos’ success. I think he’s embraced that additional responsibility really well.”
Throughout the 2019 campaign, players and coaches would constantly mention the Mexican superstar’s work rate during training, his down-to-earth attitude, his collaborative spirit, his casual demeanor, his joking mannerisms – things the media doesn’t always see.
When asked about the impact of Bradley’s coaching on his season — and in light of the coaches he’s enjoyed in his career, such as Arsene Wenger and David Moyes — Vela smirked.
“Because he’s here,” joked Vela, “I have to say good things, right?”
It was the kind of moment that cut the tension in the room, in a place where his teammates and many of those on hand fully expected LAFC to contend for the MLS Cup trophy later this week.
“In [the leadership] part, it’s something like I never been involved, but now it’s like I feel I have another role,” said Vela. “It’s because they push me to be like that.”
Bradley took a moment to admire his captain’s ability to seize moments that not every great player receives.
“Some guys play their whole careers where they are never in that situation, where everything they do is going to make a difference,” said Bradley. “I think he sees that and he’s appreciated that, and he obviously handles all that really well.”