Analysis

Carlos Vela gives Mexico's audience another chance to buy into MLS

Photo: LAFC

MLS has long been a place for over-the-hill El Tri players. Now, it's attracting Mexico stars in their primes.

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LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Football Club's braintrust said it would do things in a big way, and that’s been the case, so far. There are the deep pockets and celebrity sizzle of the ownership group, the sparkling stadium that's going up next door to the Memorial Coliseum, Bob Bradley's arrival last month as head coach, and now the first Designated Player, a name that resonates strongly in this market and across Major League Soccer.

Carlos Vela, whom LAFC introduced in the shadow, literally, of the Space Shuttle Endeavor at Exposition Park's California Science Center, might not quite be Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in marketing terms, but he is widely considered the most skilled Mexican player on the planet. His exquisite skill and canny sense promise big things when the club makes its MLS debut next March.

That's certainly how Bradley, general manager John Thorrington and fellow brass see it, and the bark surrounding the move -- a mix of acclaim for the club and stark criticism of Vela's decision to leave Europe in his prime -- has been deafening. If Sebastian Giovinco and Miguel Almiron signal steep progress for the league's stature, Vela might be the next step.

It's my life, you know? And I think it's the best moment to come here, so if I feel good, I'm good, you know? [The critics] don't know about all the time I spend in Europe, the difficult years I spent there. They don't know about my life.

- Carlos Vela

MLS has employed prominent Mexicans since day one, many on the far side of their arc and too many unable to make the expected contributions. For every Cuauhtemoc Blanco, there's a Rafa Marquez, with most falling somewhere in between. El Tri's in-their-prime talent has mostly stayed away, playing for good pay at home or better pay -- and experience -- in Europe.

Now, MLS has three such players in one market, with the dos Santos brothers just a few miles south with the LA Galaxy, and maybe it's just a start. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio's preferences aside, there's much to offer Mexico's stars in MLS -- and especially in Mexican epicenters in the Southwest and Chicago -- and more so as the league and its clubs build on the Giovinco/Almiron model.

Vela’s arrival represents another tangible shift -- the second in a month, following the arrival of Jonathan dos Santos at the LA Galaxy -- in how top Mexican players view MLS.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

LAFC identified Vela, who has played the past six years with Real Sociedad, as a target more than a year ago. Talks went quickly, just “three or four weeks,” according to Vela, who already had an affinity for the city. He'd scored his first international goal in the LA Coliseum and played in front of the huge, adoring green-shirted masses native to the region there and in the Rose Bowl.

Vela checked with good friend Giovani dos Santos, who, apparently, raved about the league and the L.A. lifestyle.

“You have a lot of Mexicans [in L.A.]. You feel like you are home ...,” he said. “All the people love L.A., you know? All my friends are jealous because I'm here.”

Whether Vela can live up to the demands and responsibilities of being LAFC's No. 1 -- or No. 10, the jersey number he says he'll request -- isn't certain. Being the face of a franchise, especially one with as much means and ambition as this one, requires skills beyond just those needed to play the game.

Vela's ability is revered among his peers.

Bradley in Friday's press conference noted that his “phone was lighting up” with calls from “my football friends: Hristo Stoitchkov, Mohamed Salah and many others” because “they know what kind of player, what kind of person” Vela is, and “every one of them said that it is a great day for LAFC.”

The fans were happy, to be sure.

“It's 100 percent support [from the supporters groups],” said Josef Zacher, a leader of the group Black Army 1850. “They really like this signing. He's got the skill, he's got the talent, he's got the edge, and in this town, it's kind of cool to have an edge. ... If you equate it with what Bradley did for Chicago [Fire ahead of its 1998 debut], I think he's found his [Peter] Nowak. That's really the level that it's at.”

Vela is a left-footed attacker capable of summoning magic. U.S. fans might recall how he demolished Bradley's U.S. defense in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup final. When he's on, he's nearly unstoppable, but he's not always on, and his defensive liabilities might seem a red flag for a coach such as Bradley, who so prizes tactical discipline.

Photo: LAFC

Photo: LAFC

If so, it went unsaid. Vela, who has played primarily on the right flank but can slot in just as easily on the left or as a second forward, could be dominant in MLS. Bradley sees Vela as the cornerstone to LAFC on the field, and the first real piece of a team that will attract the masses in LA.

"He can play anywhere along the front, especially when you see him coming from wide areas into the center, creating, scoring goals,” Bradley said. “This is something that we see with Messi, we see with Neymar, we see with players that are not just standing in the front waiting for balls in the box, but taking balls in different parts of the field and doing things that are exciting.”

Thorrington, a former MLS midfielder who played twice for Bradley with the U.S. national team, called him a club “cornerstone.”

“Since 2012, outside of strikers, he has scored or assisted more goals [65 goals, 36 assists in La Liga play] than anybody in Spain, and he's playing for a top-six team in Spain, and he’s 28,” Thorrington told FourFourTwo. “For me, he ticks all the boxes. He's a great guy. I think he understands [what he's getting into], and what motivates him about this challenge is the responsibilities that come with it.”

There should be a lot of respect and admiration given to how they run their league. We can learn a lot from them to grow football in Mexico.

- Chicharito

That's crucial. Vela was far more productive in his first three seasons at Real Sociedad (47 goals and 27 assists in 117 games across all competitions) than in the his last three (25 goals, 10 assists in 107 games). He, like Giovani dos Santos, occasionally disappears in games. His motivation has been questioned at times, but he says he's all in.

His critics wonder. Why, they ask, would a player with great aspirations decide, in a World Cup year, to trade La Liga for MLS? Especially when, as Vela apparently did, there are options elsewhere in Spain, in England, in Italy and in Germany. This is a step backward. Just ask Osorio, who earlier this year said that Mexico players in their prime should stay in Europe and avoid MLS. He later backtracked on those comments.

Vela doesn't think so, neither do the dos Santos brothers, and Chicharito defended their decisions in a rollicking news conference ahead of his debut Sunday for West Ham United.

“They're playing in a city that is practically Mexican and a league that has grown a lot,” Hernandez said. “There should be a lot of respect and admiration given to how they run their league. We can learn a lot from them to grow football in Mexico.”

Thorrington called the perception that MLS is a weak league “a compliment.”

“There's a direct correlation with how upset they are with how good Carlos is,” he said. “So I actually see that as a compliment, and my challenge, our challenge as a club, is to completely rubbish this [ideas of] what and where the league is and [how it is] substandard. It's insulting, it's untrue, but I just see that as a challenge.

Vela just shakes his head.

“It's my life, you know? And I think it's the best moment to come here, so if I feel good, I'm good, you know?” Vela said. “[The critics] don't know about all the time I spend in Europe, the difficult years I spent there. They don't know about my life.”

Vela said he wants to be the best player in MLS, a goal that is both lofty and not unreasonable. The fact that it’s an objective of his at all speaks to the progress in perceptions of the league, now a realistic destination for some of Mexico’s best players in their primes.

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