Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny knew he was in trouble. He had already been beaten once by Arsenal’s precocious young Mexican and the teenager was again through on goal.
Kenny attempted to pre-empt a shot and shifted his weight to his left. It was a mistake. Carlos Vela sensed the movement and at that moment lifted the ball over the Blades keeper.
The finish was sublime. Kenny crumpled into the turf, left embarrassed by the youngster. Vela would later go on to complete his hat-trick. A star appeared to have been born.
“He’s so calm in front of goal, that always makes you a smile,” Arsène Wenger said in 2008 shortly after Vela linked up with Arsenal.
The teenager had signed with the Gunners almost three years earlier after starring for Mexico at the 2005 FIFA Under-17 World Cup. Yet he needed two seasons in Spain to gain a work permit.
“He had an enormous amount of innate ability but above all else was a boy who had a lot of confidence in himself,” Javi López, former coach of Salamanca, Vela’s first loan club, told Sky Sports. “He knew he had weapons for football and he overcame all the challenges in front of him with relative ease.”
That hat-trick proved the crescendo of Vela’s Arsenal career. He would go on to make 64 appearances for the club but only 19 starts. He was loaned out to West Bromwich Albion and then Real Sociedad, the Basque side he would join permanently in 2012.
Vela was just 29 years old when he left European football. He became the first marquee player to sign with new franchise Los Angeles FC. Many felt he had settled, accepting the vast potential he had would go unfulfilled.
“I’m going at the right time and with the desire to try a new adventure,” he told Real Sociedad’s website. “I want to be close to my country. My family can visit more often and I can go home more often.”
His first campaign in MLS ended with an impressive 14 goals and 11 assists in 29 appearances. It was clear the Mexico international hadn’t entered semi-retirement in the U.S. He was there to leave a mark. And this season Vela is on the verge of history.
Score or assist against Real Salt Lake this weekend and he will surpass Sebastian Giovinco‘s record for goals and assists in a single MLS season (38). Perhaps more impressive is that Vela, who has struck 23 goals and claimed 15 assists in 2019, can reach the landmark in just 24 matches.
He hasn’t played through the middle, either. Vela, LAFC’s captain, has been stationed on the right of a front three. It’s a position from which he can cut inside onto his left foot and aim for the far corner.
European fans know this as Arjen Robben’s trademark move. In America, it belongs to Vela.
All of Carlos Vela’s 37 goals in MLS
(? via @futbolMLS)
— Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) August 12, 2019
That it didn’t quite fall into place for him in Europe is down to a multitude of factors, but perhaps none more than Vela himself. Even in his Arsenal days there was discussion over his appetite to make the very most of his talent.
“He is naturally gifted, quick, intelligent and with very good technique,” Wenger said after that hat-trick against Sheffield United. “Now I want him to add that combative, determined side that makes the real difference. He’ll be a world-class striker when he adds that to his game.”
That desire to become one of the world’s best never infused Vela’s game. Perhaps it’s because football isn’t his passion.
“I enjoy playing but once the match ends the football is finished for me,” Vela said in an interview with Canal+ in 2014. “You can talk to me about anything else other than football because I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so or like doing so.
“What I don’t like is everything that surrounds a footballer. The fame, people idolising you, the press, not being able to have a normal life like a normal person. I think that is what has held me back a little in football.”
Those who coached the forward in his youth will not be surprised by Vela’s impact in the United States. The league isn’t as strong as those in Europe and the Mexican’s innate football talent can only be rivalled in MLS by Zlatan Ibrahimović – with whom Vela became embroiled in a public spat with this summer.
Yet talent alone – as Vela knows full well – isn’t enough. There has been a clear change in mindset from the forward since he arrived at LAFC. But why?
“It’s an accumulation of things,” he explained during last summer’s World Cup, a competition in which he impressed.
“Sometimes we take incorrect decisions… from those you learn. Having a family has helped me a lot. I am more focused and it’s important for me that they support me and make me a better person.”
The 30-year-old has already broken records in MLS – no Mexican player has scored more goals in the league – and it’s inevitable he claims Giovinco’s landmark. If it doesn’t happen this weekend, San Jose Earthquakes are next up.
Vela may not have become the star many expected but he has made history. He will be remembered. Especially by Paddy Kenny.