As MLS has pivoted away from importing its star power via aged former greats and toward a strategy of bringing in younger players who, by talent or drive or personality, couldn’t quite make it at the sport’s highest levels, the league has had more success at presenting fans with players capable of really tearing shit up. Think Sebastian Giovinco’s incandescent first two seasons at Toronto, or Josef Martínez record-breaking campaign with Atlanta United last year.
Everyone makes out in these arrangements: the players provide the league the truly special technical ability required to consistently conjure the kind of magic that makes soccer so amazing at its best; in turn, the league provides the players the cash and the fourth-rate competition that the players wouldn’t be able to find in the major leagues of Europe. But as fantastic as some of these pacts between situationally rich MLS teams and overqualified-but-sub-elite players have been, none have provided the kinds of awe-inspiring spectacles Carlos Vela is putting together with LAFC.
Vela joined the league last season as the shining star of the much hyped trio of Mexicans (along with the Brothers dos Santos, Giovani and Jonathan) who ditched Spain’s La Liga for MLS. As the most talented Mexican of his generation, who not that long ago at Real Sociedad was legitimately one of the best forwards in Spain, there was little doubt about whether Vela had the tools to excel in MLS. The only question, as it had been throughout his career, was whether Vela would care enough to give it his all.
Vela’s first season with LAFC—no, Los Angeles FC are not the Galaxy; no, they are not Chivas USA either (well, not exactly); yes, LAFC are a brand new team that was birthed from some wallet last season; yes, I know it’s hard to keep up with the ever-expanding list of MLS franchises, which seem to be spawning like Gremlins—was a somewhat measured success. In 29 appearances, Vela racked up 14 goals and 11 assists, and led LAFC to the playoffs, where they lost in the first round. Pretty strong individual stats from Vela, and a respectable league finish for a team in its inaugural season, but maybe not quite what you’d hope for from literally the most talented player in the league.
This season has been different. This season, Vela has transformed into MLS’s Lionel Messi.
It’s still incredibly early, of course, but Vela’s stats are already eye-popping. In just nine matches, Vela has scored 10 goals and amassed five assists. He leads the league in goals, assists, shots, shots on target, key passes, and successful dribbles. (All stats via WhoScored.) WhoScored has its own holistic X-out-of-10 rating system that is impossible to judge or value, since the site keeps the equation behind the rating hidden from the public, but just as a comparison, Vela’s seasonal league rating (8.54) is higher than Cristiano Ronaldo’s (7.75), Eden Hazard’s (7.80), Kylian Mbappé’s (8.00), Neymar’s (8.44), and even Messi’s (8.52). By any statistical measure or presumable eye test (“presumable” because I haven’t watched a minute of MLS this season so I’ve not had the chance to subject his performances to my own visual examination), Vela has dominated MLS so far this season on a level on par to how the world’s best players dominate their leagues.
Of course, Vela dominating MLS is hardly in the same universe as Messi dominating La Liga, or even Mbappé and Neymar dominating the relatively weak Ligue 1. But while Vela obviously couldn’t do in a serious league what he’s doing in MLS, he ostensibly could do something kind of close to that in Spain or France or somewhere similar. Let’s not forget, for a few years there Vela was the best player on an ascendant Real Sociedad team that had Antoine Griezmann on the roster and qualified for the Champions League one season. Though the 30-year-old Mexican probably peaked early and his loss of speed and acceleration mean he likely could never get back to his 2013 heights even if he tried, Vela still clearly has preposterous amounts of skill and venom in that magical left foot of his. If only he were a different sort of player, one more single-mindedly compelled to commit himself to the maximization of his god-given gifts, he would probably still be in Europe today, scoring goals and weaving spells and dropping jaws where it really matters.
Alas, Vela is himself, and his talents are his own to do with as he pleases. Vela did attain a measure of greatness where greatness counts for a couple years in Spain, and nothing can take that away. Whether his body let him down or his mind couldn’t focus or his personality valued things other than a slavish devotion to the talent in his legs, for some reason Vela wasn’t able to or interested in maintaining that level and pushing beyond.
Instead of playing alongside Messi and Mbappé and Neymar in Europe, Vela is here in MLS, competing for accolades with Jozy Altidore and Diego Valeri and Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimović (the latter two with a combined 70 years of life between them). Vela is the biggest, most exotic fish in a home aquarium, captivating every eye that gawps through the glass with his mere existence, eating his fill every day. It looks like a swell life, to be sure—well-paid and loads of fun. It’s just a shame we can’t know if Vela could still stand out in the open ocean, out alongside the world’s other beautiful things.