The best goal of Carlos Vela’s 2019 MLS season wasn’t the record-breaking 32nd. No, that goal was vintage Vela. A Curler. First, it’s above the crossbar, then it’s swerving into the top corner. A great goal and unquestionably his calling card. But not his best.
Vela’s best goal this season was named a 2019 MLS Goal of the Year runner-up by a fan vote. Just goes to show you, sometimes the customer is wrong. Against the San Jose Earthquakes, Vela scored what can only be described as a stream of consciousness goal. A blend of imagination, spatial awareness, and utter disregard for defenders, it could easily be the best in MLS history.
All too often, replays start from 30 yards and in. The 41st minute goal against the Earthquakes requires a viewing from before Vela even comes into frame.
Surprisingly, Vela starts the play as a decoy. Although he’s both puppet and puppet master, pulling the strings of the move near midfield.
Vela scurries to show for a pass from Josh Pérez. Just as the ball reaches its intended target, the LAFC captain feigns the slightest of touches over the top of it, pivots, and turns to face goal as the ball is redirected into Vela’s path by teammate Diego Rossi. The choreography of the tandem’s movement carried out at high speed and with precision.
People often say players with exceptional dribbling ability seem to have the ball glued to their feet. For Vela, it’s more like a yo-yo. He dangles the ball in front of defenders before yanking the string to snap it away.
One defender takes his chance just before the penalty area. Vela nudges the ball just beyond the lunging challenge. The LAFC captain looks up and quickly assess another oncoming challenge. And just like that, he pulls the ball back to his feet once more. Another defender left in Vela’s wake with only the goalkeeper to beat…
The goal might have never happened had things gone different seven months earlier. The rumors started in the first week of preseason training. Vela was close to FC Barcelona. Close to linking up with Leo Messi. Who could say no?
“When a team like [Barcelona] comes to ask about your situation, it’s a good thing,” Vela told reporters back in January. “It means you are doing a good job. I take it in a good way. I’m doing positive things.”
The move never materialized. Vela shrugged it off. That’s football sometimes. He went on to say he was happy in LA. He was committed to LAFC. And he went back to work, focusing on becoming the best player in MLS.
He backed up those words early on, scoring 11 goals and adding five assists in the season’s first 10 matches. The talk of MVP started less than a month into the season. Instead of shying from it, Vela met the subject head-on.
“Every day I’m trying to be better. Be a better player, a better teammate,” Vela said after LAFC’s second match of the season. “And in the end, I’m working to be the MVP of the league. If I want to do that, I have to show every game how good I am.”
Throughout the season, Vela would calmly reiterate his intentions when asked about his performances after matches. More brazen proclamations about breaking records and winning awards had been made by others this season. Vela went about his business on the pitch week in and week out.
Over the course of the 31 matches Vela played this season, he never went more than one match without scoring. The LAFC captain had streaks of four and five matches with at least one goal. He finished the season on a nine-match scoring streak, including a hat trick on the final day.
Vela set a new MLS record for goals in a season with 34. He also led the league in shots, shots on goal, goals away from home, and goals per 90. Vela led the league in penalties scored with nine. A fact some used to refute his season’s eminence, as if scoring from the spot in pivotal moments was a fait accompli. But for good measure, Vela led the league in non-penalty goals with 25 – also a record.
Vela wasn’t simply a poacher on the pitch though. He added 15 assists to his unprecedented goal tally. Directly involved in 49 goals via scoring or assisting, Vela equaled or bettered the offensive output of nine MLS teams.
Since 2015, pundits have held aloft Sebastian Giovinco’s first season with Toronto FC as the “single greatest in MLS history.” That year, Giovinco scored 22 goals and added 16 assists, amassing a record 38 combined goals and assists. No player had ever reached 20g/15a levels prior to Giovinco.
Vela equaled Giovinco’s greatest season totals in August, just 23 matches into his 2019 season. Had he not played another match all season, Vela would have been a lock for MLS MVP. The fact he went on to score another 11 goals in the season’s final month and a half created a whole new level of greatest in MLS: the first 30g/15g player.
San Jose goalkeeper Daniel Vega stood just outside his six-yard box. He watched LAFC start with the ball yards from its own goal line. He watched Carlos Vela begin his run near midfield. Now he’s sprung into action as Vela glides past another defender, leaving only Vega between Vela and the Earthquakes goal.
With a drop of his right shoulder, Vela yo-yos the ball from one side to the other. Vega slides through the area Vela briefly occupied. Now you see him, now you don’t. In the blink of an eye, Vela goes from being in front of the goalkeeper to unimpeded on goal.
Vega peers back for a brief moment as if to confirm what he just saw. One last chance to stop the inevitable. Defender Nick Lima comes sliding across goal line.
But Vela has seen and done enough. With the ball on the outside of his left boot, Vela cuts across the prone defender. Lima pops back to his feet to make one last challenge. It’s an effort made in vain, as Vela deposits the ball into the narrow side of the net between the defender and the post.
Like its scorer’s season, no goal was better from start to finish in 2019. The voters might have gotten the Goal of the Year wrong but Vela’s claim to the single greatest season in MLS history is without question. And now he has the silverware to prove it.
Carlos Vela is the 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP award winner.