The winning mentality of Carlos Vela and LAFC

LAFC captain Carlos Vela is hungry for more after winning a championship while also thinking about his life after his playing career.

LOS ANGELES — It’s still early in the competition season, but LAFC, sitting third in the Western Conference with one game in hand, the only remaining undefeated team, and in the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League, have set its sights on multiple trophies in a single season.

To achieve what seems like an insurmountable target of playing 54 games in 41 weeks, they have relied on a regular roster rotation at an early point in the season, when they can afford wider room for experimentation errors. The MLS Cup defending champions began 2023 with that very goal – to achieve greatness across the board in multiple tournaments.

In the words of their captain, Carlos Vela, whose name is synonymous with LAFC as their first signing and only remaining player from their inaugural season, “This trophy just makes me more hungry.” He uttered those words in 2019 as he lifted his MLS MVP trophy, and similarly, as he hoisted the MLS Cup at LAFC’s Championship parade and rally in November 2022 alongside his teammates, the LAFC front office and thousands of elated fans, as he said, “when you get a trophy, you want more!”

March 4, 2023; Giorgio Chiellini and Carlos Vela celebrate LAFC’s opener in a 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers. BMO Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Henry Tran

The expansion team that set the MLS landscape on fire with its flashy swagger back in 2018 is in a self-sustaining cycle of trophy lust, playing flexible attacking-style soccer and winning. Greatness begets greatness. It’s no surprise that LAFC are now firmly positioned as one of the leaders in the races for the 2023 Supporters Shield, MLS Cup, Concacaf Champions League, with the Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup coming this summer.

“Talking about five tournaments in one year, it’s a lot of football. But we have sights on winning some more trophies. Whatever competition we’re in, we want to win. And we have a beautiful opportunity in playing these tournaments to add to that list,” Kellyn Acosta declared in LAFC’s first media event this past February.

Whereas in 2022, LAFC captivated the league and captured the MLS Cup with their star-studded summer signings and bench depth, this time around, LAFC are blending in their lesser-known younger signings with a seasoned roster mentoring them.  As a result of that process, they are now one of just two teams in the league to still have a perfect home record this season.

Carlos Vela, the MLS Cup champion, two-time Supporters Shield winner and MLS MVP, now 34 years old, is the last of the original LAFC players. His current legacy includes trophies and shaping the future of his teammates as well as his team.

 Throughout his 6 seasons, he has remained focused on two tasks – to bring trophies and to bring enjoyment to the fans of soccer which he mentions in just about every press conference. However this year, he’s added onto that list. As the timer on his player career ticks, he also wishes to enjoy every moment for himself, and he’s adapted to his role, allowing for other players to pick up the slack when he is not at his fastest or fittest. Arguably, he began this process in 2022, when Cristian “Chicho” Arango had his breakthrough year, scoring 18 goals.

On paper, Vela has had a less than ideal start to this MLS season, notching just 3 goals, but he also rocked the record books once again by finding his footing just in time to strike down LAFC’s most bitter city rivals, LA Galaxy.

By notching two of the goals in the first El Tráfico of 2023, Vela became lead scorer in the series (12 goals), and with his assist to Ryan Hollingshead for the third goal, he was instrumental in giving LAFC their first win on LA Galaxy soil. It was a tremendous (if not ugly at times) win, one which caused ripple effects throughout both teams’ locker rooms and press conferences afterwards. LA Galaxy’s captain, Chicharito, resentfully defended his team stating, “I didn’t say [LAFC] were one of the best ones. Just to clear the context, because… I didn’t say that. In your opinion, yeah. But it’s in how it ends, it’s 34 games. We’ve had the same narrative in my last two years … They are doing a very good job, they are doing great things but for us, it’s a result-driven job over here and we depend that and unfortunately we haven’t delivered, but the bright side is that this is just the beginning.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum just a few doors down, in a small locker room, LAFC’s captain and hero that night, Vela, gave a heartfelt and sincere personal assessment even though that night he was the one who rose to the occasion, with a nod to his teammate, Denis Bouanga (now with 7 MLS goals, 5 CCL goals) for delivering so many times before.

“I didn’t start how I want to be. When the team is doing well, other guys are getting more responsibility, playing good. Denis is scoring a lot of goals, helping when maybe I’m not at my best. That gives me more time to get my rhythm, more time..” He pauses and smiles, then continues, “You know I’m a little bit old. I need some games to get my rhythm. But right now, I feel good. I think I’m improving.”

His goals and starts come now in ebbs and flows. He shares the responsibility with his fellow forwards – Bouanga, who has now started in 7 of 8 matches, Kwando Opoku (also starting in 7 of 8 matches, scoring 1 goal), newcomer Stipe Biuk (starting in 4 of 8 matches, scoring 1 goal). His playing time of 441 minutes is less than that of He knows his role is evolving. This is second phase of his playing career where the minutes wane, but the work is perhaps even more relevant. He remains a leader on and off the field as the voice of the team when it counts the most. The day after the raucous politics of El Tráfico, Carlos Vela had the last word on who is best in Los Angeles, posting on Instagram, “Yesterday, the best team won.”

Apr 16, 2023; Carson, California, USA; Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) scores a goal on Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeepers Jonathan Klinsmann (33) in the second half at Dignity Health Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In their latest battle, on the road against Nashville SC, LAFC struggled to find the net, outshooting their opponents 19 to 8, and trailed for the first time this season, until Bouanga saved them from their first loss and neutralized 2022’s MLS MVP Hany Muktar’s first-half opener by leveling the score in the 59th minute, and putting away his first road goal of the season. Vela subbed in at the 70th minute and was not a factor in their 1-1 draw. But likely he will play a role and impact the next match LAFC are heading into, the away leg of the CCL Semifinal against their 2022 MLS Cup Final opponent, Philadelphia Union.

Both LAFC and Philadelphia aim to become the second straight MLS team to win CCL and receive a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup, as Seattle Sounders did in 2022. “We respect them so much, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to put up a fight and try to take advantage of our strengths and try to minimize our weaknesses,” LAFC midfielder Ilie Sánchez elaborates after their match in Nashville. “I’m sure their coach and their coaching staff have been preparing for this game for a long time, [however] we will fight for everything to be able to show one more time that we want to fight for big moments and trophies like the one we have in front of us.”

As LAFC continues to evolve from within never losing their high expectations, so too does their emblematic captain.