There’s a clip from We Are LAFC, the ESPN documentary series on the club, where Bob Bradley says he wants Carlos Vela to be as good as Lionel Messi. A lot of people laughed at it.
Asked about this line after Los Angeles FC beat Sporting Kansas City in their season opener, Bradley doubled down.
“I’ve said that to two players in my career, there’s two guys I’ve shown Messi clips to and said, ‘look, this can be you,’” Bradley said. “It’s Carlos and Mohamed Salah, and I think I’m right in both of my choices. So Carlos is sick of it, but he’s going to keep hearing it.”
This is a bit silly on its face, sure. Vela is 30 years old and left La Liga for MLS. He’s not going to have a 70-goal season or win the Ballon d’Or. But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that Bradley wants Vela to play with the confidence that he can beat any defender in front of him and take over any game. At MLS level, this is almost certainly true. He was dominant in LAFC’s 2-1 win over Sporting, beating players with dribbles seven times even though he didn’t get on the box score. A week later, he provided a goal and two assists in a 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers, en route to being named MLS player of the week.
There’s no question that Vela can be the best player on a Supporters’ Shield winner. There’s no question that he can be an MLS MVP. There’s no reason he can’t draw the attention of three defenders at once to open up space for his teammates to score easy goals. He cannot be Messi, but he can absolutely have a Messi-like impact on his team. And given Vela’s history and personality, telling him that Messi-like things are expected from him is pretty clearly good coaching.
If you’re a newer soccer fan, or you don’t follow Mexican soccer that closely, you might not be familiar with how Vela broke onto the scene. He won the golden boot at the 2005 Under-17 World Cup and looked destined to become a superstar in Europe. He signed for Arsenal, where he had some productive loan spells, followed by three years where he regularly looked like he was on the cusp of a breakout campaign, never quite cementing a first team place. But when he moved to Real Sociedad in La Liga and was given a key role, he started playing like the star he was supposed to become — Vela scored 12, 14, and 16 goals in his first three La Liga seasons.
But he had a downturn in form around the time David Moyes showed up in San Sebastian, and he was never quite the same player again. He also didn’t help himself by skipping training in 2016 after attending a concert the night before.
Vela was also suspended by Mexico in 2010 for partying, and he felt singled out, given that other players who were present were not punished as harshly. He spent four years beefing with the Mexican FA and its coaches, ultimately refusing an opportunity to play at the 2014 World Cup. He has scored 10 goals for El Tri since returning, including two in his first game back against the Netherlands.
To a large degree, the setbacks and bad form years in Vela’s career were his fault. Every player gets punished if they get caught partying instead of training, everyone has to play for a manager they don’t get along with, and everyone — even Messi — goes through a period when they’re on the bench and need to earn their spot.
But telling Vela that he’s a spoiled brat who hasn’t proven anything isn’t going to do Bradley any good. He’s a smart coach who understands Vela is a special talent at MLS level. Whatever words of encouragement, tactical setup, and team environment help Vela perform to his best are what LAFC needs to reach its potential.
So what does Vela need? I’m not his coach or psychologist, but he’s giving us some hints with his own words. Vela wants a positive team environment where everyone is happy with their roles, and where everyone feels like they’re allowed to be creative.
The varying psychological makeups of top players is very interesting to me. Carlos Vela on why he played well tonight: "Everybody was excited, everybody was involved in the game, and when everybody is playing good I feel well to play and I feel free to do all this stuff."— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) March 11, 2019
Vela also wants to be valued as a star player. That’s why Bradley praises him at every opportunity, challenges him to be LAFC’s Messi, and put the captain’s armband on him.
Vela was excellent, though not quite MVP quality last year, putting up 14 goals and 13 assists. But LAFC was very much a developing roster, picking up pieces as the season went along as they tried to figure out how to turn an expansion team into a playoff contender. They did that work quickly — while LAFC added a bit of depth this offseason, their starting XI is made up of players who finished 2018 with the team. They’ve had the benefit of going through a full preseason together and getting comfortable with each other. That, combined with Bradley’s words, has Vela sounding more confident than he ever has before.
“Every day I try to be a better player, better teammate, and in the end, I’m working to be the MVP of the league,” Vela told reporters after the Portland match. “If I want to do that I have to show every game how good I am.”
Throughout his career, Vela has been criticized because he’s only great when he’s in the right mood and has a team built around him. Rather than complain about that, Bradley has opted to attempt to build a team around Vela and get him into his best mood. It’s working, and we’re getting to see the best version of Vela. It’s going to be so fun to watch LAFC this season.