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Vela doing it all his own way en route to record season, MLS MVP trophy

19:00 BST 19/08/2019
Carlos Vela LAFC
LAFC's captain set a record for most combined goals and assists in a campaign with nine matches to spare but is taking it all in stride

There are nine games left in the MLS regular season, and Carlos Vela already has more goals and assists combined than anyone in MLS history.

His goal from the penalty spot in Saturday's 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake took him to 24 goals on the year. Add that to his 15 assists, and he's eclipsed Sebastian Giovinco's 22+16 season in 2015.

Vela is having one of the best seasons ever seen in MLS. Even as Zlatan Ibrahimovic finds the back of the net regularly across town for the Galaxy, Josef Martinez makes a run at the golden boot with a goal in 13 consecutive matches and Maxi Moralez continues to create goals for NYCFC, Vela stands above the pack as the likely MLS MVP this season.

And there is no doubt he's doing it his own way.

On the field, there are few who can match what Vela is doing. He currently sits at 1.25 goals/assists per 96 minutes, a ridiculous tally that leads the league by a significant margin. Dig deeper into the numbers, and you see Vela leads the league with an xG of .86 per 96, according to the gurus at American Soccer Analysis. His actual tally, though, of goals minus xG is at 4.

What that means is the computer models that look at the shots Vela is taking and the places from which he's taking them expect the Mexican attacker to be scoring far fewer goals than he actually does. He's defied those computer models, scoring from all sorts of angles to lead the league in goals. It's no accident his teammate, Diego Rossi, also sits high on that scale, with Vela often putting him into places where he knows the Uruguayan can score, even if the models don't expect him to.

LAFC coach Bob Bradley was captured in the "We Are LA" documentary asking Vela to be like Lionel Messi for the team, and those are Messi-type numbers.

Off the field, Vela has been doing things his way as well.

There's the Mexico situation, or the absence of a Mexico situation. El Tri manager Tata Martino absolutely could use Vela on the national team right now and would've loved to have him as one of his wingers during the Gold Cup instead of an unproven player like Uriel Antuna. Yet Vela is resolute in his decision to step away from the international game, and Martino isn't going to beg him to change his mind.

Even so, Vela is proud to be a Mexican player achieving success abroad, even as pundits regularly criticize him or say his terrific season doesn't mean anything because it's happening in MLS.

"I don’t send (the critics) any message. At the end of the day, every person makes their own evaluation and their own criticism and it’s all respectable," Vela said after the win over RSL. "I don’t want to say who is right and who isn’t.

"Every person things in some way. I see it from the positive side. I see that I’m making history in this league and putting the name of my country on high, which is the only thing I’m thinking about."

Instead of listening to the critics, Vela set his focus on breaking records in his current league - though at his current clip, he could've helped Mexico lift the Gold Cup and still had the record for most points without too much hassle.

Then there are his comments to the press - a sharp contrast from Ibra's MO. The Swede looked to incite a war of words before the teams' first meeting of the season, saying he's the best player in the league "by far, because if he's in his prime. How old is he? 29. And he's playing in MLS and he's in his prime. When I was 29, where was I?"

But Vela could still be in Spain if he wanted to be. His former club, Real Sociedad, is currently working to rehabilitate the reputations of former wunderkids like Adnan Januzaj and Martin Odegaard. Vela was once in that position himself, moving to Arsenal after standing out at the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship.

He bounced around on loan at all sorts of clubs, and too often spent more time attending concerts or seeking things away from soccer than working on his game. It came so naturally to him that he never seemed to truly appreciate it. Now, he's putting in the daily work needed to be one of the best Mexicans in the world and putting his potential to use.

Vela sort of 'shot back' at Ibra's comments but not how many members of the press might have hoped. Vela said he felt like he's been the best player in the league but followed it with "I think the important part is coming so I have to finish the same or better, and I hope I can take the MVP and the championship," in a sentence during which you can practically hear him shrugging.

Ibra no doubt had the better career, but is anyone in the league having more fun than Vela right now?

"I think you always have the hope or motivation to get things like the record. You get it because you work every day to be able to have rewards like this," he said. "Obviously, it doesn’t always happen and it’s not easy to do it, but it’s what has kept me at a good level. I want to be the best in this league, try to show it every weekend and there are still nine games, so I have to close well to enjoy and be able to say it was a great year."

It wouldn't hurt to get one over on Ibra and the Galaxy on Sunday, when the second installment of El Trafico takes place. While LAFC has achieved all sorts of honors in its first two years of existence, a victory over the Galaxy has so far escaped them. Vela has done his part, matching Ibra with six goals in the four previous meetings between the LA sides, but what he really wants is a win.

Beyond that, the fact that LAFC clinched a playoff spot in August, that it has an obscene +42 goal difference (Atlanta United's +15 is the league's second-best), that it almost certainly will set an MLS record for the most points, will all feel hollow if the season don't end with Vela and his teammates on the podium lifting MLS Cup. 

"Obviously, that’s the principal objective, but you also have to look at all the records we’re getting as a team, as players," Vela said. "But of course the top goal and what we’ve been working for since the first day is the title. So it would be something tough after the year we’re having, but we’re going to fight until the last day to get it."

Vela will be fighting in his own peculiar way, happy to make headlines, yes, but not worried about playing for the national team, getting in a spat with other stars or even getting the credit he deserves, not only in his home country but in all of North America and around the world. If Vela wins MVP, if LAFC lift the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup, those are the images that will run on TV in Mexico and abroad. 

Making history is nice, but trophies speak for themselves.