The visitors connected a series of passes in the midfield, inspiring cries from the corner of BMO Stadium occupied by their supporters.
Carlos Vela gave chase. Kind of.
Vela’s faint effort to dispossess León of the ball was in vain. About 10 minutes later, the fourth official on the sideline held up an electronic board that flashed the No.10, Vela’s jersey number. With almost a half-hour remaining in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, Vela was replaced by someone named Stipe Biuk.
Vela didn’t produce any magic Sunday night, certainly not the kind of magic that could have reversed LAFC’s deficit against León of Mexico in a game that crowned the best club team in a region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
León won the game 1-0 and the two-game set with an aggregate score of 3-1.
Vela is 34 years old, and he looked like it.
He launched a free kick that sailed high over the crossbar and into the stands. He blasted another that crashed into León’s defensive wall.
He was equally ineffective in the run of play, his diminished reflexes preventing him from dribbling by León’s defenders or even sneaking passes by them.
He didn’t take a single shot on target.
“Carlos wasn’t impacting on the game at the moment,” coach Steve Cherundolo said of Vela’s 64th-minute substitution.
Once the most feared attacker in this part of the world, Vela was as invisible Sunday as he was in a 2-1 first-leg defeat four days earlier.
Four years removed from the greatest individual season in Major League Soccer history, he was practically reduced to the role of spectator in the most important game in LAFC history.
Vela looked slow.
He looked uninspired.
He looked finished.
Vela’s contract expires at the end of the current MLS season, and LAFC will now have to decide what to do with the player around whom it built its franchise.
Vela will turn 35 next March.
He was guarded earlier in the week when addressing his future.
“I am very happy and I enjoy playing for this club,” Vela said in Spanish. “In this business, we know anything can happen. We must always be open and willing to listen to whatever may be the best option and decide what is best for my family and me, whether it is here or in Mexico, or even retiring.”
Vela is also still one of MLS’s most popular players, his jersey the best-selling on the league’s online store as of last month.
But the Mexican attacker is on a contract that guarantees him $3.3 million this year. MLS roster rules permit teams to carry only three designated players — basically, players who can be paid as much as teams want to pay them — and Vela is one of them.
As a franchise icon who appeals to LAFC’s multicultural and multilingual fan base, a justification can be made for him to retain that designation beyond this season.
For what Vela provides on the field, no such argument can be made. In a salary-cap league with unusually specific cost controls, giving one of three designated-player slots to Vela would be soccer suicide.
Vela was the ideal choice to be LAFC’s first-ever player. He wasn’t just a Mexican player in a Mexican American city. He was also a legitimate world-class talent.
About the only potential drawback was his reported apathy, a notion he quickly dispelled with his play on the field. He scored. He created for others. He even tracked back on defense.
In LAFC’s second season, in 2019, Vela scored an MLS-single-season-record 34 goals in 31 games. Last year, Vela was part of the LAFC team that captured the franchise’s first MLS Cup.
In its brief history, LAFC has distinguished itself from other MLS teams by combining style with substance. Teams such as the Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and Inter Miami have also invested heavily in their rosters but not wisely, turning themselves into circuses. Some of the league’s other successful teams — the Philadelphia Union, in particular, come to mind — have won games by adopting unattractive and cynical styles of play.
LAFC showed what an MLS team could do if it was as smart as it was ambitious. Vela was a major part of that.
Perhaps LAFC and Vela can find a middle ground for the sake of continuing their partnership. Perhaps Vela can return as a non-designated player.
Otherwise, this will likely mark the end of his time with the team. LAFC hasn’t become what it’s become by being sentimental or making major mistakes, and paying Vela millions of dollars beyond this season would be a major mistake.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.