Let me tell you two stories about Carlos Vela. One is mine, the other is not.
First, the story that isn’t mine.
You probably read it or the few like it that came out in the months leading up to the 2018 World Cup.
The gist of that story is Vela as the reluctant superstar, wishing his skills were on the hardwood instead of the pitch. His true passion is the NBA, not soccer. It is not a new story for Vela by any means. It is an amalgamation of cherry-picked quotes and observations recycled over and over. In fact, it's been retold many times from the outside looking in, at least since he left his family's home near Cancun to pursue a career at the highest levels.
Now, my story. This story you haven’t heard or read before. It takes place at LAFC training two months after Vela’s return from the World Cup.
Through the quirks of the MLS schedule, LAFC had a two-week gap between matches at the start of September. The Black & Gold had just taken three points off the defending MLS Cup champs in Toronto, much of it thanks to the insane, acute-angle goal of Vela that put the match to bed at 4-2 in the closing minutes.
Without a match on the weekend, Bob Bradley was putting his side through a rigorous training session. As players walked off the pitch at the LAFC Performance Center drenched in sweat from the September heat, Bradley reminded them the necessity of getting a session in from time to time that will make you sore the next day.
Before Vela could leave the pitch, he was met by assistant coach Ante Razov. Vela’s session wasn’t complete. He had a combination fitness and finishing drill to complete. The expression on his face did all the talking, but Vela wasted little time finding his mark to start the drill.
Start some 40 yards out, weave in and out of the cones, jump two hurdles, receive the ball, and finish. In and out, receive, and finish again. Vela repeated this with pace about 10 times, alternating turns from the right side with Diego Rossi on the left – a sight many MLS defenses encountered this season and would probably like to forget.
The ball just leaves Vela’s foot differently. He strikes it and before you hear the thud, it’s on the goalkeeper in a hurry. And never straight, always with Vela’s trademark curl.
Despite being exhausted from the training session he already endured, Vela was giving the goalkeepers no quarter once again. But before giving the drill a go once more, Razov halted Vela. He’d finished his requisite number of reps. He was done for the day.
Walking back to the start, Vela turned and gestured to Razov. One more. Slaloming through the cones, then over the hurdles, Vela curled the ball over the outstretched hand of the goalkeeper and just under the crossbar – his last strike probably the best of the day, just like Toronto. And he didn’t stop his run. He sprinted straight down the players’ tunnel into the locker room. Now, he was done.
These are the “two Velas." He is one of the most beloved and most debated about soccer players in North America.
There's the superstar that prefers not to be out in front speaking to the media. How can he really love soccer if he won’t speak about it, they ask? His talent is undeniable though, so it must be solely God-given is the rationale in those stories.
And then there is the Vela that you don’t see or hear as much about. Because the hours of work he’s put in to reach that level don’t make good copy. The Vela that returned from leading Mexico at the World Cup – becoming just the second non-American MLS player to ever score in the world’s biggest tournament – via a direct flight from Russia to join LAFC for training just a day later.
On Sunday, Vela was named to the MLS Best XI for 2018 by a vote from his fellow MLS players, technical staffs, and members of the media – he’s also a finalist for MLS MVP and Newcomer of the Year.
Whichever Vela you ascribe to, his 2018 stats were undeniable.
Vela played 28 times for LAFC, leading the team with 14 goals and 13 assists. He finished 2018 as one of just 11 players in the league with double-digit goals and assists and tied with David Villa for 8th overall in non-penalty goals + assists per 90 minutes (.87).
In the midst of the MLS season, Vela traveled halfway around the world to help Mexico to a 1-0 defeat of Germany, the reigning World Cup champs at the time. El Tri would eventually bow out to Brazil in the knockout round. Vela started in all four World Cup matches for Mexico. And despite a short period in which he was not at his best after the return from Russia – his words, not mine – Vela battled through the exhaustion to finish the season with six goals and six assists in his final nine matches and lead LAFC to third place in the West and an expansion-team record 57 points.
So, the next time you hear about one of these “two Velas,” think about where the story ends, and reality begins. Because the reality here is Carlos Vela, MLS Best XI in 2018.