It’s not hard to find people willing to compliment Carlos Vela.
The 30-year-old has been on the radar of coaches and football fans alike from a young age, after bursting onto the scene in 2005 at the U-17 World Cup in Peru.
His enticing blend of speed and skill encouraged a bevy of offers from clubs in Europe before Arsenal ultimately won the race to sign him. Work permit restrictions meant he would spend the first two years of his Gunners career in Spain, with Salamanca.
"He was a just a boy but he had great qualities," Javi López, Salamanca's manager at the time, told Sky last year. "He exceeded our expectations. He had an enormous amount of innate ability but above all, he was a boy who had a lot of confidence in himself. He knew he had weapons for football and he overcame all the challenges in front of him with relative ease.”
That great quality has been on display regularly in Major League Soccer. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may do the talking in Los Angeles, but it is Vela that tops the league in both goals and assists (he has contributed directly to 66% of LAFC’s goals this season). There has been tentative talk of this being a ‘record-breaking’ year for Vela. The single-season goals record belongs to Atlanta United's Josef Martínez who ended on 31 goals last year, Vela is on course for 34.
The race for that accolade will once again bring into sharp focus the narrative of Vela’s career — consistency.
As a teenager, Vela had all the required tools to reach the top of the game, but the story that unfolded has so far been one of almost there. A nearly-man.
"I always told him that he had the attributes to play at an elite level - for any of the big European teams,” Lopez added. “But it's not just about having the talent. You need mental strength and above all, desire."
Those final ingredients — most notably, desire— have escaped Vela throughout his career. After struggling to break through at Arsenal he moved to Real Sociedad in 2012.
Vela’s goalscoring improved season on season in his first three years at the club as he struck up a devastating partnership with Antoine Griezmann that helped Real Sociedad qualify for the Champions League. The Frenchman would eventually join Atletico Madrid in 2014 and while Vela had opportunities to leave the club he didn’t want to, nor did Sociedad want to sell him and so he remained. While admirable, he never broke double figures in La Liga again.
As Yoan Cuezva, a journalist who covers Real Sociedad put it, “Consistency was never his strength. He's a player who, if he wanted, could have been in the top 10 in the world. But for him, the most important thing was just to be happy in his own way. He was happy with his life at Real Sociedad."
Identifying why Vela is that way is as difficult as it is frustrating. The 30-year-old hails from Cancún, a part of Mexico that is known most for being a holiday destination (the city’s coat of arms is divided into three parts: the blue symbolises the Caribbean Sea, the yellow, the sand and the red the sun).
Vela made no secret of his priorities during an infamous interview with Canal+.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “The truth is that I’ve never been so passionate about football as to say ‘I’m a fan of Real Madrid or of this team and I’ll stand with them to the death’. I enjoy playing, but once the match ends the football is finished for me and you can talk to me about anything that isn’t football because I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so or like doing so.”
It could be argued that such a binary relationship with football makes it easy for distractions to take root. In 2010, Vela was suspended for six months for his role in throwing a party after a game against Colombia. It began a complicated relationship with his country that continues to this day (he recently opted to decline a call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup in the U.S.).
“I spoke with Carlos Vela over the phone last week and he assured me that at this time his club and his family are his priority, that’s why he stepped aside.”
That news was no doubt music to the ears of fans in LAFC. The confirmation they will have their star forward for the full season (barring injury or suspension) is a boost to their aspirations for league and cup success.
As for Vela, the time has come for him to prove he can be what so many have decided he is not.