Is Soccer Superstar Carlos Vela Finally Ready to Embrace the Spotlight?

L.A. Football Club’s charismatic captain has been able to lay low in the City of Angels, but not for much longer

Opponents fear it from Carson to Vancouver, Washington D.C. to San Jose. It’s a dance that begins with the goal in the distance, defenders scrambling across an open field in pursuit.

Then, at the perfect moment, a stroke of the left foot. The ball whips out, up, and away, looking sure to sail wide of the net. The ball swings, magnetically, violently, back—unexpectedly, impossibly into the net. Joy erupts in stadiums across the country, on screens across the world. The boomerang. The curve. La Curva.

Carlos Vela, a starting forward and the captain of the two-year-old Los Angeles Football Club—and undoubtedly the most formidable player in all of Major League Soccer at the moment—can’t explain why his trademark shot behaves the way it does, the ball whipping effortlessly past goalies like it is possessed. He shrugs it off as if it is as easy as doing the cha-cha. “That is the only shot I have, man,” he laughs.

To wonder whether he’s joking is to miss the point. Vela has long had a knack for overturning expectations himself, a trait that sometimes confounds his supporters as much as it does his critics. Right when you expect him to zig, he zags.

When the 30-year-old made his Major League Soccer debut at the start of the 2018 season, his hiring was heralded as a major coup for both American soccer at large and for the newly launched expansion team LAFC in particular. Before he signed with Los Angeles, Vela had proved his worth as a consistent and often dazzling scorer in Spain’s respected La Liga, where for seven years he competed against soccer gods like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar.

From LeBron James to Wayne Gretzky, most star athletes come to L.A. to amplify their celebrity, to grow their brand, to bask in—or at least cash in on—their fame. Vela harbors no such ambition.

The Mexican-born striker is far from the first marquee player to leave Europe’s top-tier leagues for America, but there is one crucial difference: his age. When crosstown club the Los Angeles Galaxy made a splash by signing David Beckham in 2007, the footballing Brit was already 31; the Galaxy’s latest headliner, Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden, is 37. By contrast, Vela, then 29, was widely seen as having his best years ahead of him. But while upstart LAFC had netted itself a word-class player in his prime, there were accompanying expectations. Would Vela live up to the hype?

If there were doubts, Vela’s inaugural season for LAFC, played in the club’s gleaming new stadium in Exposition Park, erased them. He scored 14 goals and was voted captain of the MLS All Star team. LAFC finished in third place in the Western Conference, qualifying for a playoff slot but lost to underdogs Real Salt Lake in the first round. In a sport of narrow margins, 2018 was as solid a debut year as a nascent squad had ever seen in MLS, with LAFC breaking most expansion team records.

This season, however, Vela has been otherworldly. He’s scoring goals and dishing assists at an unprecedented rate, astounding even his most ardent supporters. Despite a recent minor injury, he’s currently the league’s hands-down favorite for MVP. Vela has already posted career numbers in both goals and assists with several games still to play. He’s also on track to break the record for goals in a single MLS season, elevating a first-place team that was already exciting to one poised for historic greatness.

As Vela delivers on what his club demands from him on the pitch, the question is whether he’s getting the lifestyle he sought when he left football’s world stage behind in Europe. From LeBron James to Wayne Gretzky, most star athletes come to L.A. to amplify their celebrity, to grow their brand, to bask in—or at least cash in on—their fame. Vela harbors no such Hollywood ambition. He doesn’t have a clothing line. He turns down endorsements that offer the kind of paychecks his teammates might not make in their entire careers. He has yet to do a late-night talk show. A low profile is what Vela wants from the entertainment capital of the world. Paradoxically, he came to L.A. to hide.

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Vela, an enthusiast of multiple sports, threw out the first pitch at an April 2018 game

Courtesy Los Angeles Football Club

His long journey to Los Angeles started in his native Cancún. The son of a welder and a stay-at-home mom, he grew up with three brothers, playing two-on-two games of basketball and soccer. “We never [needed] to take more friends home because we had four. We don’t need more,” he says. “We had this perfect space—we could play two against two. So all my life was sports.”

Those games with his brothers paid off. As a teenager he emerged as the crown jewel of Mexico’s so-called Golden Generation, a promising group of young players who won the Under-17 World Cup in 2005—the country’s first world title. Vela’s standout performance in that tournament came with an extra burden: a lifetime of obsessive coverage by Mexico’s soccer-mad sports media. Shortly after that fateful tournament, his professional career began with Arsenal, one of England’s most respected Premier League teams. When he moved on to Real Sociedad, a midtier outfit located on Spain’s Bay of Biscay coastline, pundits in his homeland raged that he should be playing for a more prominent club. Vela ignored them, quietly thriving away from the scrutiny surrounding perpetual contenders like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

Even though he featured for the Mexican National Team, or El Tri, in the 2010 World Cup, there were behavioral speed bumps—the after-hours party that led to a suspension with El Tri, a faked sickness to skip responsibilities at Sociedad to attend a concert, a refusal to play in the 2014 World Cup, a bare minimum of media appearances all the while—but these infractions were rather tame in the hyperbolic world of global sports superstardom. 

What drove public outrage most was Vela’s manner. Some called it nonchalance, others ego, but his demeanor was best summed up months before starring in the 2018 World Cup during the NBA All-Star Game in Downtown LA. A few months into his LAFC career, he told reporters he’d rather watch a thousand basketball games than one of his own sport. Despite his outstanding performance in Russia’s tournament last summer for Mexico and a continued, visible commitment during club matches, the lingering accusation of being detached, of being too tranquilo remains. That’s because off the pitch, he’s chill.

Vela is stoic in post-game interviews, never entirely overjoyed by a great win nor devastated by a big loss. This lack of intensity drives the media bonkers. He’s only able to keep them at bay through charm, a cracked joke, a reminder that what’s being discussed is play. It’s fun. What’s with the seriousness? But if it’s so fun, why is Vela often the first one off the pitch after a home victory? Why won’t he partake — or even lead — the post-game chants with supporters? What’s the rush to get away from all the fun? 

In press scrums, Vela possesses a natural aversion to being drawn into debates, whether over the national team, his opponents’ words, his past, his future. A player of his caliber isn’t supposed to be like that, they are supposed to deliver soundbites. They’re supposed to insult rival coaches, confront opponents, break the rules then play the missteps down. They’re supposed to profess their greatness aloud, again and again. In other words, they’re supposed to be Zlatan.

 But what do great athletes owe spectators after the final whistle? Do those responsibilities change between a casual fan or a die-hard supporter? For the media? If an athlete delivers a jaw-droppingly performance, why does it matter what they say afterward? Does any of this serve more than the industrial complex of sports spin? Does it do more than satisfy a public need for projecting cohesive narratives onto an individual? What’s with this demand that the best athletes also be willing to engage in the post-game fray? Will on-field play only matter if there’s the off-field entertainment to match?

 There is no official playbook for how to present yourself to the public as a professional football star, but if there was, Vela seems hell-bent on subverting it. After declining another call-up for this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup to give younger Mexican starlets their share of the spotlight, Vela was chided by Mexican coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who said he wouldn’t be welcomed back to El Tri under his tenure. In the fuss over his national team future, Vela downplayed his own importance, insisting ‘nothing extraordinary’ has happened with him wearing the Mexican National Team jersey. Although universally lauded by teammates and staff, Vela’s reputation for being noncommittal stems from a natural contrarian streak toward public perception. In short, his behavior is like his trademark shot: a curve ball.   

“If all the people do the same, I don’t want to do it. I want to be on the other side” Vela says one spring afternoon at LAFC’s practice facility on the campus of Cal State LA. “I really enjoy when I make decisions and everybody is killing me [for it], but I’m there enjoying the moment.” 

In what might be his first feature-length English interview, the threat of the press-shy ace vanishing mid-conversation feels all too real. He’s rocking a pair of neatly torn jeans, a dark bomber jacket, and fuss-free, practical sneakers. It’s impossible to decide whether it’s the aerodynamics of the look or how long it took to schedule the sit-down that creates the impression he could escape at any minute—by foot, by jetpack, by secret chute below his chair—the same way he dodges opposing defenders and the tabloids.

Ironically, the allure of media-rich L.A. was that it offered a break from the microscope that followed him around Europe. For Vela, the city’s glut of entertainment star power and the prominence of other major sports — the Kings, Dodgers, and Rams all recently flirting with championships, the Lakers and Clippers bulking up on free-agent talent — provided a welcome shield from the cameras.

“He is a superstar,” says John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager, who helped secure Vela’s signature. “But in L.A., in a city of superstars, he can go and live a life.”

Only two years after signing, though, Vela’s delicate balance of stardom and solitude is already slipping. He’s playing too well. LAFC is winning too often. Matches at Banc of California Stadium have quickly become one of the hottest tickets in town.

As arguably the most creative player to ever suit up for El Tri, Vela arrived in L.A. an icon among Mexican Americans. The more he lights up the pitch near downtown and around the league, the more his appeal has widened.

“It’s not only Mexicans that are buying his jersey these days,” says Nicolás Orellana, owner of Niky’s Sports, which has served as one of the city’s most important soccer hubs since it opened in 1986. “Fans from other countries like Guatemala or El Salvador buying the jersey of a Mexican player—it’s pretty unheard of.”

Tribalism runs deep in this sport—and this city—but Vela has become a unifying force for both. He assists goals for a Salvadoran teammate in one moment and in the next uses press conferences to deflect shine onto teammates who hail from Libya, Ghana, and Norway the next. And it’s not only the expected demographics that Vela and company have turned into devoted LAFC fans.

“When I came here, it was only the Latino people that asked to take a picture with me,” Vela says one afternoon at the club’s practice facility on the campus of Cal State L.A. These days a shopping trip might lead to a white family approaching for a photograph, describing how they go to every game, how they follow his every highlight. Vela might not have come to L.A. seeking to become a star, but celebrity is slowly but surely finding him.

That’s why in January a sigh of relief came from the city’s growing soccer fan base. A loan move was on the table for Vela from FC Barcelona, which sought to bring him back to Spain and soccer’s biggest stage. A year earlier, when Vela’s San Sebastian-raised wife, Saioa, and three-year-old son, Romeo, were still adjusting to America, he might have tried to force the move. But now the family has emerged from a tough transition period and come to love L.A. Language lessons have begun. A pricey pad in West Hollywood now feels like home. They have even grown used to the traffic, for the most part.

carlos vela lafc mvp
On the town with his wife, Saoia, and 3-year-old son, Romeo.

Courtesy Los Angeles Football Club

LAFC recently fired up two massive electronic marquees along the 110 Freeway, but there are no billboards of Carlos Vela spread across the city. This is by design. For a team that sought to upend the most clichéd Angeleno narrative—that the city is a one-dimensional landing pad for those seeking fame—a superstar who shies away from the media and delivers on the pitch is the ideal scenario.

“We want him to perform, and to lead us on the field, and to be a great teammate,” says Tom Penn, LAFC’s president and a part owner. “The public facing component of that is last on the list in terms of priority.”

In Laker terms—a team in a sport Vela loved growing up—he marries the mind-blowing performances of Kobe Bryant with the demeanor and professionalism of Pau Gasol. Vela’s current coach, Bob Bradley, draws a connection with another former Laker and, incidentally, another member of LAFC’s ownership group. “Magic Johnson was such a charismatic person in how he carried himself on the court. But at the same time he was such an incredible competitor. That’s how I think of Carlos,” Bradley says.

A performer when the lights are on but elusive when they’re off. A real presence in the locker room but a riddle outside of it. The reluctant superstar. Maybe it’s just the chill Cancún demeanor, but pinning down what makes Vela tick—and what he might be capable of during his time here—brings to mind another beach-born Mexican futbolista who made the move to L.A.: Jorge Campos.

Campos was the first foreign player signed to the MLS. He tended goal for the Galaxy when they played at the Rose Bowl during the league’s inaugural 1996 season. Back then, his L.A. experience mirrored Vela’s—blasted by Mexican media, finding a circus of media in certain moments, peace in others.

“I think football is art,” Campos tells me in Spanish. “There are players more special than others, more artistic than others. Vela is one of the best Mexican players worldwide. But he is different.”

For Campos, L.A. was a place to express himself. He wore neon jerseys. He paraded recklessly away from goal. He confused the hell out of people. His stay in Los Angeles was rather brief.

The flamboyant style of the Acapulco-born Campos doesn’t resemble that of Vela. Vela’s strokes are fluid and brutal: a casual drift before a crackling shot. A gentle breeze before a tropical storm. Moving to a city of celebrities to deflect fame, only to have it become a place where his celebrity is more pronounced than ever. Back and forth. Give and take. Defying reason. La Curva.

It’s the name of Vela’s lethal, goal-scoring boogie but also a football term for the area of the stadium behind the goals where the wildest devotees stand. In the north end of Banc of California stadium, it’s home to LAFC’s famed 3252 supporters, the heartbeat of the club where flags wave free, no one sits or ceases signing, and which provides a pumping drum-laden soundtrack for every match.

In Spanish, Vela’s last name means candle. Vela and his adoring fans. Flame and kindling. A deft stroke into the back of the net, and suddenly the entire stadium is ablaze. A team that two years ago didn’t exist is now one of the most dynamic spectacles in professional sports. A zig where you expected a zag.

In a preseason game earlier this year, Vela faked like La Curva was coming only to cut the ball back to his right foot and slot it easily into the goal. The crowd didn’t know how to react. It had been fooled as badly as the defense. The laughter was audible. “I see the defender go that way, and I take the ball and everybody is there,” Vela says. “They left me all this space.”

For an August 21 home match, the game before his recent injury, Vela took advantage of that space for his “Long Kiss Goodnight,” a slaloming masterpiece goal that immediately entered the conversation as among both the greatest in league history and the most outrageous the player has ever produced.

As unexpected as it might have seemed when he launched his career, Vela had found a space of his own in Los Angeles, a city where he can be can finally be the type of player he wants to be. Julio Ramos, a native of Guadalajara and a key figure in both the LAFC and El Tri supporter circles in town, feels the change in location has made all the difference.

 “When you are comfortable, you show your best on the field,” says Ramos, nodding toward the pitch during a match from his place in the first row of the north end. “You can see it.”

 Is Vela comfortable? His play this season shows one obvious answer. He has space to score, to win, sure, but also to entertain, to delight fans with the unexpected. For perhaps the first time since those carefree days where he lit up the Under-17 World Cup, before all the attention, Vela can play freely. He remains the paradox of the artist — at once breathtaking and misunderstood, beloved and media-avoidant, an archetype Los Angeles knows well. But, it’s his off-the field comfort zone, the territory of his near career-defining scrutiny, that’s doing the expanding. 

After a disappointing 3-2 defeat to the Galaxy in July it was Vela who walked straight over to traveling 3252 supporters to applaud them, something he rarely does after home victories. It was Vela who stood defiant in a steamy nook outside the visiting locker room until reporters exhausted their every question. It was Vela who admitted his team lacked intensity. The next month it was Vela, who threw his armband down in frustration after being subbed out for an injury with a heated contest with the Galaxy knotted at 3-3.

Captaincy is new to him but he’s growing into it. It handcuffs him to what he’s skirted in the past—the responsibility to lead his team toward something he has yet to capture in his career: a league title. This season, even more than his own accolades, Vela wants the MLS Cup for LAFC. Anything short of a championship will leave the raucous Black & Gold supporters, and Vela,  wondering what could have been. If he can get the chip, maybe he’ll deserve what he’s always wanted most: the space to be left alone. By then though, he might just zag-zig again.

“I want to surprise all the fans, all the people in MLS,” Vela says with a maniacal grin. “You will see.”

An earlier version of this story appears in the September issue of Los Angeles.

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