LOS ANGELES — Carlos Vela joined Los Angeles F.C. with a reputation. A couple, actually. The first was as a goal scorer, a forward possessing the sort of talent that makes defenders shudder.
But over the course of more than a decade in Europe, Vela also became known for a variety of operatic interludes: for clashing with managers who sometimes questioned his commitment, for having the gall to say he preferred to watch basketball in his spare time and for repeatedly turning down overtures from the Mexican soccer federation, a series of disputes that led to his missing the 2014 World Cup.
His arrival in Los Angeles, and in Major League Soccer, before the start of last season stirred up even more controversy. To critics of his decision, Vela was leaving the Spanish club Real Sociedad, and a league where he faced some of the best teams in the world, so he could move to California at the height of his career and dribble around lesser talent. To be clear, while M.L.S. has made many improvements in its standard of play, it is not La Liga.
Now, after having established himself as the best player in M.L.S., Vela continues to be one of the most talked about figures in the league, mostly because he is playing in it at all. His critics include no less an eminence than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker who joined the crosstown Galaxy last season at age 36, and who will line up against Vela in an intracity playoff showdown on Thursday night.
“He’s playing in M.L.S., and he’s in his prime,” Ibrahimovic said of Vela in a televised interview this season. “When I was 29, where was I? Big difference.”
Vela, 30, does not know Ibrahimovic personally — “I have not had the pleasure,” Vela said with a wry smile in a recent interview — but he said the criticism did not bother him. In fact, he does not seem to care much at all what others think he should be doing. He is doing what he wants to do, he said, where he wants to be doing it. And he wonders: Is that so wrong?
“Maybe the people don’t really love my decision,” Vela said of his move to M.L.S. “But for me, it was the best option, and I’m really happy that I made it because I am enjoying it.”
In his quest for personal fulfillment, Vela has positioned Los Angeles F.C. as the favorite to win this year’s M.L.S. championship. He set single-season league records for goals (34) and total points (49), all while leading L.A.F.C. — the league’s highest-scoring team — to the best record in league history.
“I feel like I’m an important part of this league,” Vela said, “so I’m trying to do good things.”
At the same time, he has embraced being closer to family and friends in Mexico, where he grew up. He bought a home in Southern California, where he lives with his wife, Saioa Cañibano, and their 2-year-old son, Romeo. He loves the weather, he said, and the relative privacy that comes with working in a city brimming with celebrities.
“If I go out to eat with my wife,” he said, “or take my son to the park, nobody cares.”
And if he does draw attention away from the field, blame the Ferrari that he sometimes drives to work. It is the one with the child safety seat wedged in the back.
(How do you fit a car seat in a Ferrari? “I say to my wife, ‘Pull your seat up as far as you can,’” Vela said.)
It has been quite a journey, then, from his childhood in Cancún, where his father fixed boats and his mother “did everything,” including shuttling her four sons to school and soccer practice. Vela eventually left home at age 14 to join one of his older brothers at a club in Guadalajara.
There, Vela proved gifted enough to draw the attention of Arsenal of England’s Premier League, which signed him as a 16-year-old in 2005. But his time in London was patchy at best; Vela wound up scoring only three goals over three seasons before Arsenal sold him to Real Sociedad, where he played from 2011 to 2017.
Vela said he felt more at home in Spain — he was not a huge fan of the weather in London, he admitted — and he had several productive seasons in San Sebastián, helping Real Sociedad to a spot in the Champions League in 2013. But there were murmurs, too, especially back home in Mexico, that Vela was leaving his potential untapped, that he had more to give, that he was squandering some of his gifts. Vela did his part to fuel the narrative by playing down his passion for soccer, once telling a reporter: “I enjoy playing, but once the match ends the football is finished for me.”
Toward the end of his time at Real Sociedad, he missed a day of training after he attended a hip-hop concert, an unexcused absence that became tabloid fodder and added to his reputation as a player who lacked focus and commitment.
Vela has acknowledged some missteps, but he has never apologized for his approach to the game or for his insistence on his own kind of work-life balance. He is not a soccer robot, he said. If that bothers people, so be it.
“I like to play football,” Vela said. “I love to go on the field, and I want to score 100 goals every game, if I can. But it’s also my job, and when I finish my job, I have a life. I have a family.
“When I’m working, I want to be the best. But when I’m out, I don’t want to watch games. I don’t want to talk with everybody about football. I want to talk about life — about anything else.”
Ahead of L.A.F.C.’s inaugural season in 2018, club officials identified more than 100 players who they thought the team could potentially build around as their first major signing. As the process went on, they whittled that list to one name: Vela. The club did its homework, Coach Bob Bradley said, and came away with no concerns.
“You want your first signing to be a statement of what kind of football you’re going to play,” Bradley said. “You want your first signing to be a player who’s going to connect with your city. And then, from my standpoint, you want your first signing to be a guy who can be the best player in the league.”
In conversations with Vela before he signed, Bradley came away with the impression that the forward was ready for a change.
“He was very much his own man,” Bradley said. “He had an idea of what he thought was going to be best for him and his family, and he didn’t care what anyone else would say about it.”
In that sense, Vela has remained true to himself in Los Angeles. An obvious choice as captain, he tends to exert influence not through fiery leadership but with a softer brand of diplomacy, such as insisting that a slumping teammate take a penalty kick to build his confidence.
“There’s this whole thing that he doesn’t love football, right?” Bradley said. “All I know is that when he comes in every day, on the field and in training, he enjoys himself, he enjoys the time with his teammates and he wants to win.”
That was apparent when Vela screamed at Bradley for subbing him off in the second half of a heated rivalry game in August against the Galaxy. Even though Vela had strained his right hamstring, he was eager to play on — and he let Bradley know as much.
Bradley was making the sensible choice: He needed Vela to be healthy for the playoffs. As for the outrage that Vela had displayed as he was leaving the field, Bradley dismissed it as Vela’s usual brand of competitive fire: no big deal. It was a rare moment of conflict that coach and player were quick to set aside.
“There is a high level of mutual respect there,” said John Thorrington, Los Angeles F.C.’s general manager.
Vela has more work to do in Los Angeles — a first win over the Galaxy would be a start — but he is not ruling out a temporary return to Europe, either. He said he was close to joining Barcelona on loan during last January’s transfer window before the deal broke down. He remains open to the possibility of such a move — not because he has anything to prove, but because he thinks it would be fun.
“Who could say no to playing with Messi for four months and then come back to L.A.?” Vela said. “Enjoy, learn and then come back home.”
Back home to Los Angeles, where he hopes to finish his career, he said, and where he and his family have settled into a rhythm. After training sessions, he eats lunch with his wife, whom he met while playing in Spain, and Romeo, who has not expressed much of an interest in soccer — not yet, anyway. And if the boy never does? There are other options.
“He’s going to be a surfer in Malibu or something,” Vela said. “Good life.”