In many ways, Carlos Vela has never been in a better place. The 29-year-old Mexican forward is playing some of the best soccer of his career for MLS expansion team Los Angeles FC, which is on track to qualify for the playoffs in its maiden season.
He can walk around his West Hollywood neighborhood without being mobbed, a welcome respite from the fishbowl existence he lived playing for clubs in futbol-mad England and Spain. He was probably Mexico’s best player at the 2018 World Cup.
Still, a month after Russia 2018 wrapped, Vela remains upset that El Tri’s once-promising World Cup campaign fizzled with a decisive loss to Sweden, then elimination by Brazil in the Round of 16 — this after they’d upset defending champion Germany in their opening match. It marked the seventh consecutive World Cup in which Mexico advanced from group play but stumbled immediately in the knockout round.
“It’s still a hard moment, because we expected to win the tournament,” Vela told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “We started really well but we lost against Sweden. That was an important game, and we lost. After, Brazil was really difficult. In the end it was like every World Cup before, so I’m not happy about that.”
Vela couldn’t put his finger on exactly what went wrong in the 3-0 drubbing inflicted by the Swedes. Whatever the reasons, he contends that it robbed Mexico of valuable momentum.
“Sometimes you have a bad day and they do all good. Football is like that,” he said. “It was a difficult moment for us. And after that, the team was down. It was a problem, a factor.”
By contrast, Vela and LAFC have exceeded just about all expectations so far. The Cancun native has eight goals through 17 games. His two game-winners lead the team, which narrowly missed out on a spot in next month’s U.S. Open Cup final after losing to Houston on penalties last week. Even in the midst of its current six-game winless streak, its first real lull this season, LAFC is still averaging more points-per-game than rival LA Galaxy, the most successful club in league history. For a side that has stayed above the playoff line all season, Vela believes the MLS Cup is realistic goal.
“It’s the first season, and sometimes it’s difficult to build a team so quick, but we started strong because we came to an ambitious club,” Vela said. “We want to be in playoffs, we want to fight for a title. That’s the way the team is feeling.”
LAFC will meet the Galaxy for the third and final time this season on Aug. 24. LAFC blew multiple-goal leads in both of the previous two matches, losing the first 4-3 and drawing the second 2-2. For neutrals, they were two of the most exciting MLS contests this year.
“Those were great games for the fans, but not for me,” Vela said. “Sometimes you can see we are a new team. I hope we can figure it (out) and do better in the next against the Galaxy because it’s time to win.”
But overall, Vela – who previously played for Arsenal, Salamanca, Osasuna, West Brom and Real Sociedad – is thoroughly enjoying his time in MLS. He likes the proximity to his homeland and playing for a taskmaster in Bob Bradley, who he jokes isn’t as strict as he appears from afar. He captained the All-Star team earlier this month against Italian titan Juventus. In short, life in America has been good so far, even if he’s found the league more difficult than many of his ex-teammates predicted he would.
“When you’re in Europe and you play there, and you hear about MLS, everybody thinks it’s easy,” Vela said. “It’s not true. The level is really good. You have big players playing in MLS, every team can win any game.
“You have to fight,” he added. “If you come here just for holiday or to [live] a good life and everything is easy, you are not doing well. You have to fly a lot in the country, you have different situations with the weather. You have to be ready and focused every game if you want to do good things in the league.”
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