Real Sociedad is Carlos Vela's football oasis, but he still has plenty to prove
On Sunday, Carlos Vela will start his sixth season with Real Sociedad when his team face Real Madrid in their La Liga opener.
After almost a decade of living and playing abroad, San Sebastian, Spain is where Vela has produced his best football on European soil.
The 2016-17 season is a highly significant one for Vela, who will be looking to return to his best form after back-to-back poor campaigns with La Real. If he can play with the joy he showcased with his football three seasons ago, he will regain lost support from Real Sociedad fans and get a national team call-up from Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio.
Vela's career took off at a very young age; he was only 16 when he packed his bags and set off for Europe to sign with Arsenal. When Vela agreed to join the Gunners, he was coming off an impressive U-17 World Championship in Peru, where Mexico lifted the cup after defeating favorite Brazil 3-0. He scored one of the goals that day and was the tournament's top scorer.
The U17 Championship was Vela's cover letter and he didn't fail to impress. His five goals in Peru sealed a life away from Mexico.
Before landing a loan spell at Real Sociedad in 2011-12, Vela was a footballer with no real sense of direction. He floated from Celta de Vigo to UD Salamanca, Osasuna and West Brom after failing to prove himself as a footballer capable of making a difference with Arsenal.
From 2006 to 2011, Vela's football was intermittent. And yet through it all he still managed to represent Mexico at the 2010 World Cup, where he started on two occasions.
For Vela, arriving at Real Sociedad was like happening upon an oasis. San Sebastian was a place where he felt the total support of his club from day one, a different feeling from the one he felt playing for the Mexico national team.
After winning the U17 World Championship, Vela and Giovani dos Santos were viewed as the players who would lead Mexico to the Promised Land. Every time they represented their country the pressure was on; show the world the skill that earned you contracts at clubs like Arsenal and FC Barcelona. With El Tri, both Vela and Dos Santos were forced to make a difference despite difficulties in solidifying their club careers, especially during that period between 2006 and 2011.
A comparison of Vela and Dos Santos' career paths reveals that the former has fared better in Europe. With Real Sociedad, Vela has scored a total of 62 goals, while Giovani struck just 33 times during his time with Spanish sides Barcelona, Racing de Santander, Mallorca and Villarreal CF.
Recently, it has been Giovani who has turned down Mexico national team call-ups. But not long ago, this was a common occurrence for Vela. Between 2011 and 2014, when he was playing his best club football for La Real -- leading his side to Champions League berths -- Vela did not play for the national team.
Days before the start of the Copa America Centenario, Osorio and Vela came to the conclusion that it was best for him not to participate in the tournament after a season marred by injuries and an act of indiscipline that put into question his desire to remain with Real Sociedad. Skipping a training session because of a Chris Brown concert didn't reflect well on Vela, who finished the 2015-16 La Liga campaign with five goals and four assists.
"He will have to work very hard to return to his best form and be an undisputed starter in the team," said Spanish journalist Oier Fano, who follows Vela and Real Sociedad closely throughout the season. "He will also have to work very hard to convince those fans who have not been pleased with his performance in the last seasons.
"At the moment, Vela is a player who creates division among the crowd. There are those who forgive all of his mistakes, and there are those who don't forgive players who show a lack of respect to the club."
Scenes from Real Sociedad's preseason paint a Vela who's all smiles, a player who's determined to return to the days when he played and felt like La Real's main footballer. However, it cannot be denied that ever since Claudio Bravo and Antoine Griezmann's departures, Vela has struggled to guide his side to the top tier of La Liga.
Even after rumors that Vela was nearing a move to MLS and following in Dos Santos' footsteps, he remains in San Sebastian, a place that can be regarded as his football haven. That he continues to ply his trade in La Liga is a reason to celebrate for Mexico's manager too; Osorio has been vocal about his desire to see more Mexican footballers playing in Europe's top leagues. At the moment, Vela is one of three that fit the bill, along with Jonathan dos Santos (Villarreal) and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (Bayer Leverkusen).
Osorio's options at the forward position mainly revolve around Raul Jimenez, Hernandez, Jesus Manuel "Tecatito" Corona, and even still Oribe Peralta. Vela's reemergence in the national team fold could give the manager more options to mix up El Tri's attacking block. A quick look at this list suggests that Vela's La Liga experience could be a big boost, but before that opportunity comes along, he has to fulfill certain tasks.
The first step for the 27-year-old forward is a return to his best form with La Real this season. The second step will be deciding whether or not he wants to take part in his second World Cup campaign.
Vela's footballing qualities are undeniable, but the tricky question is how does he want to be remembered long after his career is over?
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.