El Trafico continues to be an unfair referendum on Carlos Vela

Joey Gulino
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25:  Carlos Vela #10 of Los Angeles FC during Los Angeles FC's MLS match against Los Angeles Galaxy at the Banc of California Stadium on August 25, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.  The match ended in a 3-3 draw.  (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)
Carlos Vela scored his seventh El Trafico goal on Sunday vs. the Galaxy, but LAFC is still winless against its chief rival. (Getty)

We’ve found something that can stop LAFC’s Carlos Vela. Or at least stall the hype train he’s richly engineered this season.

No matter how many goals and assists he racks up — that’s 27 and 15 now, respectively, for a combined total of 42 which laughed off the previous MLS record eight days ago — there exists a belief that he isn’t as passionate about soccer as he should be, prompted largely by an interview he did with French television years ago that enticed some hefty inference.

Assuming Vela doesn’t care is a slippery and stupid slope, especially in light of the biggest story in American sports over the weekend, but it’s colored his career nonetheless.

El Trafico, the latest edition ending in a raucous 3-3 draw Sunday, shrinks the matter down to digestibility. If Vela really feels strongly about the sport, why is mighty LAFC now winless in five derbies vs. the Los Angeles Galaxy? If he’s really the runaway league MVP, shouldn’t he singlehandedly lift his side to victory?

The first time the two teams met, Zlatan Ibrahimovic came off the bench (in his MLS debut, no less) and did just that. It’s forced Vela into an uphill battle ever since, made steeper by the fact Ibra has spent weeks dousing the 30-year-old Mexican international and by extension the league his team is tearing up with shade.

Never mind the fact the two attackers actually share a similar comportment, the ability to stay stoic and imprint their talent on every match they play, regardless of the scope.

There are occasional outbursts, too, like Vela’s reaction to being substituted off in the 61st minute with what manager Bob Bradley called a hamstring tweak after the game:

It’s easy to frame that moment as proof of Vela’s commitment. The truth is, the burden still lies with the other side.

Vela scored the tying goal Sunday night, shirking substitute left back David Romney and sliding his finish past Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham in the 53rd minute:

It’s the seventh time Vela has scored in El Trafico, an eye-popping stat that trails only Ibra’s eight goals — remember that uphill battle we were talking about earlier? — and should dismiss any notion he isn’t pulling his weight in these encounters.

But that perception he isn’t living up to his potential has dogged him for years. Signed by Arsenal as a 16-year-old, back when being signed by Arsenal raised the planet’s antennae, Vela never found his footing in the Premier League and he moved to Real Sociedad, first as a loanee in 2011 and then as a permanent transfer by his own request in 2012.

He spent six seasons in San Sebastián and was Real Sociedad’s leading scorer in La Liga four times, helping secure a Champions League berth in 2013.

Are those Zlatan-level accomplishments? No. Outside of a handful of players, no one else in MLS history can match them, either.

The Galaxy don’t need to prove anything to LAFC. They have five MLS Cups, more than any other franchise in the league. They were a founding member.

Bradley and LAFC know that, and the decision to take off Vela Sunday is in line with their big-picture thinking. Why risk an injury to your best player in a match that didn’t mean much once you turned down the provincial volume?

In the short term, it means Vela had to exit the big stage early. In the long term, well, LAFC hopes there are even bigger stages.

Vela is leading them there. Regardless of how one intermittent matchup continues to turn out.

“It’s important for us players to not forget that we’re humans,” Vela said earlier in the week, “and it’s important to enjoy our jobs and every moment that we get.”

Vela remembers what matters most.

It doesn’t stop him from being a fantastic player. Be sure to remember that, too.

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