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'To be the best, you need to win continuously' - Vela 'excited' for another chance to add to his MLS legacy

18:00 BST 29/04/2021
Vela 2020 LAFC
The LAFC star is eyeing a strong campaign after a difficult 2020 on and off the field meant he could not reach the heights of previous seasons

Like virtually every other person on the planet, Carlos Vela's 2020 sucked. At least, professionally. 

There was an obvious silver lining: the birth of his daughter, India. But, even Major League Soccer's biggest star struggled with a pandemic that has changed the world forever.

Because of that, as well as a series of injury issues, it has been over a year since fans have truly seen Vela at his best. 

There have been moments, such as during Los Angeles FC's run to last year's Champions League final, but those moments have been few and far between over the last 12 months.

It has been too long since Vela consistently looked like his dominant self in MLS, too long since one of North America's most lethal goalscorers was doing what he does best.

With 2021, though, comes hope and, perhaps, a return to some form of normalcy.

Things have changed of course, but, when it comes to Vela and LAFC, some things have stayed the same.

Vela remains one of the most dominant players in MLS and LAFC remains an MLS Cup contender because of him. As they head into the new season, both the player and club continue to set lofty aims while feeling the pressure that comes with those sorts of ambitions.

Vela, though, does not see that pressure. Instead, he sees a chance to reboun, and, perhaps most importantly, a chance to rediscover what was lost due to the pitfalls of 2020.

"Excited. That's the word to best describe this," Vela tells Goal. "It was a hard year, not only professionally but personally, and not only from my side but everybody. It's something that affected all of us, but I’ve been preparing to do what I love the most, and that is playing soccer.

"I look at last year as a time to recharge and be with my family, and now I will give it my all in 2021. I’m very excited and just can’t wait to show and demonstrate how hard the team has been working."

"At the end of the day, it's not one title we want to achieve," he adds. "The goal is to be the best and to be the best you need to continuously win, and win titles.

"It’s the next step for us at LAFC, for my career: to say we’ve won, and then to continue to win."

Vela's 2020 season began as expected. He kickstarted the campaign with two goals in the CCL, lifting LAFC to a statement win over Mexicos' Leon. He proceeded to score in each of his first two MLS starts, finding the back of the net against Miami and Philadelphia.

But then, as we all know, everything changed.

When the MLS is Back tournament began in the summer, Vela opted out, choosing instead to stay at home and care for his pregnant wife. In his first game back against Orlando City, he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain that kept him out for weeks.

He played just that one game during an eight-month period, returning towards the tail end of the campaign with the playoffs looming.

And, when he did return, he did not look fully fit. A less-than-fit Vela is still better than a pretty big percentage of other MLS forwards, though, and he scored twice in four games before LAFC's playoff run ended prematurely at the hands of the Seattle Sounders.

LAFC then turned their focus towards the CCL, where Vela scored three goals in as many games before falling short against Tigres in the final.

Still, despite everything, there was at least one silver lining from a season that saw LAFC fall short of their own lofty expectations: the emergence of Vela's supporting cast, led by Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi.

Rossi, the 23-year-old Uruguayan star, scored 18 goals in 26 games, matching his total from the entire 2019 season. With Vela gone, Rossi emerged into a star himself, taking the reins and running with them as the team's leading man. 

The 23-year-old is now one of several LAFC stars earning looks from Europe, with many expecting Rossi to be one of MLS' biggest sales when that time does inevitably come.

He is not the only one, though, as Eduard Atuesta, Mark Anthony-Kaye and Latif Blessing also have interest in them from across the Atlantic, leading many - including some of the players - to view this season as the last true chance for this group as currently assembled.

Vela is now not just serving as LAFC's star, but the club's biggest mentor to a group of young players that now look set to follow in his footsteps to Europe.

"It's something we talk about. It’s a goal a lot of the young players have," he says. "To get to Europe you need to showcase your talent in MLS, win titles, and all that preparation will lead to that goal for them to take that next step in Europe. 

"I’m open to all players to provide that feedback of what I think I did right, what I did wrong, and it's from those decisions that you learn. This is the best way to explain it to them. That’s the way I think I can help the younger talent to help them achieve those goals."

Vela, meanwhile, has his own questions to answer.

The 32-year-old has not represented Mexico since 2018, meaning he is yet to appear under Gerardo 'Tata' Martino. He has said in the past that he's done with the international game, but, in a recent interview with the LA Times, Vela admitted that though he was not thinking about it, "we never know" what might come next.

Mexico Under-23s manager Jaime Lozano told Fox Sports that it would be "very difficult to convince" Vela to join the team for this summer's Olympic Games, while Martino has said that a call-up would be "illogical".

But, despite his absence from the national team and the relative uncertainty regarding his own international future, Vela is still keeping a watchful eye on El Tri.

"I’ve always said the Mexican player has a ton of potential. We simply need to believe we are good enough and work hard to achieve our goals," he says.

"Knowing that, each player will take their own route, but with the potential the Mexican players have I know they can play everywhere.

"I just want to see Mexican players being successful, whether that’s them coming to MLS or going to Europe, every individual has a different path, but I just want to see them win. That’s my country I love to see anyone from there succeed."

In the meantime, Vela is focused on his own pursuits, on and off the field.

Soccer-wise, he started LAFC's first match of the season, a 2-0 win over Austin FC, but both he and Rossi missed out on LAFC's 1-1 draw with the Seattle Sounders due to injury issues.

And, off the field, Vela remains one of MLS' biggest stars. Despite his difficulties in 2020, he continues to be one of the league's box-office draws, with the former Arsenal forward having featured alongside names such as Naomi Osaka, James Harden and fellow LA-based superstar Mookie Betts in the sports drink company BODYARMOR's most recent “One More” campaign.

"Honestly, I'm very happy," Vela says. "It's something really important and exciting for me. We share something in common and that’s being part of TEAMBODYARMOR. Us being part of this new spot shows that we are all working towards our own goals and doing things the right way.

"The work and effort we’re dedicating to our craft behind-the-scenes is paying off, and being part of this campaign alongside the other team members, is a reward for all of us."

There are other rewards, though, that are at the forefront of Vela's mind.

He has won the Golden Boot and been named the league's MVP. He has also helped LAFC claim a Supporters' Shield, a trophy that definitely carries meaning even if it isn't the premier title in this part of the world.

But he has not accomplished all there is to accomplish. At least not yet.

He still wants that elusive MLS Cup, the one that would truly solidify his place among the league's greats. At some point, he wants a CONCACAF Champions League too, even if LAFC are not in the competition this year. 

That is what motivates Vela these days. Those moments are the ones that will define his career in MLS, and it is those chances he is most excited to seize before his career is done.

"As the years go by, you tend to see soccer and life differently, but always with the same excitement.

"I love to play and score goals, and that is what drives me in each practice: I want to continue to get better. That excitement to play is what makes me smile on the pitch. 

"Of course, I want to play well for my family, so my family feels proud of me. They can see me in the pitch and seeing their excitement drives me to continue to work hard."