As the Philadelphia Union prepare to visit LAFC on Sunday night (10:30 pm ET | FS1 in the US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada), they do so know with no illusions that they can prevent reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP Carlos Vela from being a major influence on the game.
"When you talk about how did you stop Carlos Vela — I think he has in his last 34 games, 35 goals — so the answer in reality is you don’t stop him," Philly coach Jim Curtin said during his Wednesday press conference. "You try to limit the amount of times he’s on the ball as possible."
There are some who will say the combination of Vela's talents with the fact that he is still in the prime of his career at age 31 make him the best ever to grace an MLS field. His 2019 campaign certainly backs that up, when he set a new MLS record with 34 goals and also added 15 assists in the most productive offensive season in league history.
Curtin didn't dispute any of that. But he's seen other players in the league before with similar gifts, particularly in his time as a defender in the league's earlier days, when he was often frustrated by a certain Serbian-American star.
"It’s similar to an old player by the name of Preki where everyone knew he was going to chop the ball and cut back but he still could always cut back to his strong foot," Curtin said. "Vela is the same way. we know how good his left foot is but he always finds a way to get on it and hit that cutler to the back post."
That's not to say Curtin and company are heading to Banc of California flying the white flag. They're just making the journey knowing that defeating the inimitable Mexican takes a team-wide focus, and probably still includes moments when he has his way with the opposition.
LAFC's 1-0 win over Inter Miami last Sunday provides a perfect example. Miami over most of the 90 minutes did a fine job of limiting Vela, and yet he still found a way to decide the game with one incredible moment.
"It takes multiple players, it takes a team together and that will be our objective going into the game,' Curtin said. "It’s not Carlos Vela versus Matt Real or whoever he’s 1-v-1 against. It’s versus the entire team and us doing a good job of first trying to limit his touches on the ball, but also recognizing and respecting he’s MVP of the league for a reason and he’s a special player."