With a deadlock-breaking goal from the penalty spot on Sunday in LAFC’s 4–2 win over the Red Bulls, Carlos Vela continued his season-long, Messi-like path of goal-induced destruction. The goal was his 23rd of the season, and his 37th overall in MLS, the latter stat making him the highest scoring Mexican the league has ever seen. Which is a little like being the highest scoring American hooper in Italy’s Lega Basket Serie A. (No disrespect to Chuck Jura, though.)
Vela’s seasonal exploits are naturally much more impressive than his new status as MLS’s premier Mexican goal-getter. Vela has been absolutely ascendent in every phase of attack. Along with his league-leading 23 goals, he is second in the league with 10 assists, second in shots per game, second in chances created per game, second in dribbles per game, and third in fouls drawn per game. (All stats via Who Scored.) Someone who actually pays attention to the present and history of the league would be able to offer a more definitive assessment, but as a willfully uninformed MLS skeptic, it is my opinion that Vela is having the best single season anyone has ever had in the league.
That Vela’s 23 goals this year, on top of the 14 he scored in his first American campaign the season before, have earned him the distinction of being the all-time leading Mexican scorer in only two years says two things: 1) that Vela has come to MLS and totally crushed it, and 2) that MLS has virtually no history of Mexican goal-scoring excellence. The first was always likely, since Vela came to the league as a legitimately very good player who has before and still could perform well for a good team in one of Europe’s best leagues—a status he shares with vanishingly few of his MLS competitors. The second is maybe a little surprising, but not too much when you really think about it.
It’s useful to point out the compatriot Vela passed on the MLS scoring chart: Erick Torres, a 26-year-old forward who currently plays for Tijuana in Liga MX. Torres entered MLS as a highly regarded 20-year-old when Chivas USA signed him as a designated player in 2013. Across five up-and-down seasons with Chivas and the Houston Dynamo, Torres scored 36 goals in 93 appearances. He took the top spot as MLS’s highest-scoring Mexican in 2014 after bagging his 17th career goal, and he held that designation until Sunday.
Torres, with his middling career spent on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border, is far from a household name. That a player of his stature could own the Mexican scoring record in MLS with just 36 goals speaks to MLS’s at-best tertiary status in the mind of good Mexican players. If you are a good Mexican forward, you’ll probably spend your career in the one North American league that actually matters, Liga MX. If you are a great Mexican forward, you’re probably good enough to hack it in Europe. With so many much more attractive offers for their services, it’s hard to find a Mexican striker good enough for MLS yet also not good enough for Liga MX or Europe. That is how a player can claim MLS’s highest-scoring Mexican record with just 37 goals, earning him the 103rd spot on the league’s all-time scoring chart.
Vela is the rare player who is more than good enough for Europe but who nevertheless cut short his time in the world’s most competitive leagues to ply his trade in America. Vela is the most talented player of his generation, and, with his wide breadth of abilities, is arguably one of the most gifted Mexican forwards ever. That a player of Vela’s considerable quality could come to MLS in the waning years of his prime and tear the league apart is no surprise.
Vela—a player who had so much promise as a younger man, who reached such stunning, though brief, heights in Spain at the peak of his powers, and who clearly still possesses the skill, though maybe not the commitment, to thrive in Europe—is entering the final few years of his career with no appreciable national team success, with only a couple years of true stardom in Europe, and with a chintzy record like “Mexican with the most ever goals in MLS” to his name. All of it speaks to just how fantastic of a player he has been and still is, but also to just how disappointing of a career he’s ultimately had.