Is Carlos Vela still the best in MLS?

The question for the Los Angeles Football Club and Carlos Vela is a simple one. Is this the end of the line of a marvelous career? Vela is one of the best players in Major League Soccer (MLS). He’s earned that reputation due to his high-scoring ability and the magical plays he comes up with. This season, however, has been a challenge for Vela.

Although LAFC played well enough to sit in second place in the Western Conference, Vela has played almost like a shell of himself if you want to compare his stats this season to the spectacular numbers he put up in the past.

In the team’s 19 games, 12 of which he has started, Vela has produced just six goals. Yes, the season is long and there’s still a lot of soccer to be played before the regular season concludes, but Vela, despite being one of the more recognizable figures in MLS, simply has not lived up to the hype this season.

Los Angeles Football Club forward Carlos Vela in action against the New England Revolution in an LAFC preseason game on April 3, 2021. Photo credit: LAFC

This should not have come as a surprise. Vela’s play has been trending downward for the last two seasons. During the 2019 regular season, Vela played lights out, scoring 34 goals in 31 matches to go along with 15 assists. Vela simply dominated the league. He added two more goals in the postseason to finish the year with a total of 36 goals in 33 games.

That’s unheard of. Vela played so well that season that he was named the MLS Supporters’ Shield winner. He was also tapped as the Landon Donovan MLS MVP and received the MLS Golden Boot honor.

“For me, it’s just a reward for all the effort and all the work,” said Vela.  He is also the first Mexican player to win the MVP award. “This trophy just makes me more hungry,” Vela said while holding his MVP award. “The next step is to be champion. I will work really hard to get that trophy for my team, for my club. This one is just OK. I want the bigger one.”

All those accomplishments now seem like years removed from the way Vela has played the last couple of seasons. But Vela did see his wish to be champion granted when LAFC won the MLS Cup 2022 when the team defeated the Philadelphia Union on penalty kicks. In 2022, Vela played 32 games and scored 12 goals, far below what was able to produce during the regular season in 2019.

Things have not been so magical for the LAFC forward since the 2019 season. Most of the blame could be placed on the number of injuries that have befallen the MLS superstar. During the 2019-2020 season, Vela missed 12 games due to a sustained MCL injury. He was out 23 days during the 2020-2021 season because of a hamstring injury. And for the 2021-2022 season, Vela missed a grand total of 63 days and 11 games from another hamstring injury.

Injuries aside, although he has struggled in recent years, and even to a degree this season, it is difficult seeing LAFC repeat as MLS champions without Vela being in the lineup. But to get to that championship as they did a year ago, Vela recognizes that he and the team must improve their play.

Los Angeles Football Club forward Carlos Vela. Courtesy photo of LAFC
Los Angeles Football Club forward Carlos Vela. Courtesy photo of LAFC

“We know we can play way better,” said Vela. “It’s not a good sign, but also it’s a good sign because when you are not in your best and you’re still [near] the first position in the table, you’re still [in] Concacaf Champions League in a good spot to advance, I think it shows the team is a good team, has a good mentality.”

Vela is not the only member of LAFC who believes that the team needs to step up their game. After losing the Concacaf Champions League Final to Leon, LAFC midfielder Ilie Sanchez extended his thoughts on what LAFC has to do to get better as a unit.

“We have to improve, it’s the only way to move forward,” Sanchez said. “Forget what happened in this final and concentrate on our goal here until the end of the season.” 

 Moving forward is something that both Vela and LAFC have to do in order to position themselves for another title run. Vela cannot sit on old glory and rely on what he did in the past. Being an MLS All-Star in 2018 and 2019 is a long time ago for Vela. Can he capture what he did then in a bottle for a few games? The answer is yes. Is it sustainable? That would be an emphatic no.

Vela’s career is rich in superlatives. He was the first player to score in El Trafico against the LA Galaxy. He’s a couple of seasons away from hitting the 100-goal plateau. If he does hit that mark, Vela would become one of the few players to reach 100 goals in MLS history. Vela has turned hat tricks into the norm and he has become just the seventh player seventh player in MLS to score 20 career penalty kicks goals.

What does all that mean now and for the future of Vela and LAFC? It means that there are still high expectations for something great to happen for the team and for the longtime winger.

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