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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup
 By Tom Marshall

Carlos Vela's career with Mexico, Real Sociedad at a crossroads

While Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and the rest of Mexico's Europe-based national team members make the long journey to Vancouver to meet-up with El Tri's domestic-based players for World Cup qualifying matches, Carlos Vela will have time to reflect on a rough last couple of weeks.

Booed by Real Sociedad fans on Saturday in the 1-0 home loss to minnows Las Palmas and excluded from the Mexico squad for the March 25 and March 29 games against Canada, Vela's career appears to be at a crux. Lots has come out over recent days about Vela being on his last chance with the Real Sociedad, after he missed training the day after being spotted at a Chris Brown concert in Madrid.

Interestingly, Real Sociedad coach Eusebio stated that it was the club that asked the Mexican federation not to call Vela up for these matches against Canada and that the conversation took place a few weeks ago, before his recent misdemeanors.

But even if that was what the Basque outfit wanted, El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio would've been perfectly entitled to call him in, as this is an official FIFA international date.

Frankly, considering Vela's form -- although there was a noticeable uptick earlier in the year -- it's not a huge surprise the 27-year-old is not involved this week for Mexico. Osorio naming 20-year-old Pachuca winger Hirving Lozano to the squad in his place gives it a fresh, youthful and exciting feel. There just isn't the same baggage as with Vela and there's the added bonus for Mexico fans already pining to see just how important Lozano -- who scored three goals for Los Tuzos on Saturday -- could become for El Tri.

The irony of all that is that Vela should not only be in this Mexico squad, he should be the focal point of El Tri's attack in these peak years of his career.

Vela oozes talent most players could only dream of. He should be the figure-head of his generation of Mexican players. The ease with which he plays the game when on form, his technical ability, turn of pace, vision and borderline arrogance on the field help him stand out. They were the same traits that persuaded Arsene Wenger to sign him for Arsenal as a teenager.

The chemistry between strikers Chicharito Hernandez and Carlos Vela was clear for all to see in El Tri's 3-2 win versus the Netherlands.
While his Mexico teammate, Javier Hernandez, has gone on to play for some of the world's biggest clubs, Carlos Vela's career has stalled at La Real.

In Mexico, Vela's refusal to play for El Tri for almost four years, and his inability to explain exactly why, has taken its toll on his image. As have his comments about not really being all that passionate about football and not talking to anybody outside the squad when with El Tri. Last year's performances with Mexico at the Gold Cup and at Real Sociedad were hardly anything to shout about, either.

Back in late 2014, Vela was nominated alongside Diego Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo for the prize of La Liga's best forward. His career was on the up after two outstanding seasons for Real Sociedad, in which the forward helped the team to Champions League qualification and netted a memorable goal against Olympique de Lyon.

It should've been a platform to greater things, especially after he also shone on his return for Mexico against the Netherlands in November 2014. Perhaps Vela could've emulated what his former La Real teammate and partner in tormenting La Liga defenses Antoine Griezmann has gone on to achieve by moving to Atletico Madrid and becoming an absolutely essential part of one of Europe's elite teams. There is no reason in terms of natural ability that Vela couldn't have done something similar.

But while Griezmann has moved onwards and upwards, Vela has stagnated.

"Although Real Sociedad is a good team and the level in Spain is high, with [Vela's] quality he should've been ready to play for a top level club like Milan or Chelsea some years ago," Hans Westerhoff, who helped oversee Vela's development at Chivas, told ESPN last month.

Vela played in the same youth side as Hernandez at Chivas, with the former on the left wing and the current Bayer Leverkusen striker on the right wing. Back then, Vela's talent took him on to the 2005 Under-17 World Cup, in which he starred and moved on from Chivas to Arsenal. Meanwhile, Hernandez was devastated about missing out on the tournament and between then and actually consolidating himself at Chivas, there were even moments when he thought about quitting the game.

"Everyone used to say [Vela] was a lot better player than Chicharito," admitted former Chivas youth coach Luis Manuel Diaz -- who managed both players in the same team -- in an interview back in 2013.

Yet it is Hernandez who has gone on to play for Manchester United and Real Madrid, Hernandez who will soon be Mexico's highest ever goalscorer, Hernandez who has become the figure to emulate and Hernandez who is the face of Mexican soccer outside of Mexico.

"Chicharito is a very serious player, the same as his family, they don't have dollars in their eyes," added Westerhoff, going on to suggest Vela's decision to join Arsenal aged 16 wasn't the correct one.

It shouldn't be forgotten that Vela has had a good career. He has played in the Champions League and at a World Cup. Plenty of players would love to have enjoyed that kind of opportunity. Yet if Vela continues the way he has since the last World Cup, his name may be indelibly associated with unfulfilled potential.

This summer, Vela's options appear limited and his position at La Real is fragile. He is not likely to be in demand in the boardrooms of Europe's top clubs, making the specter of Vela in MLS all the more likely. The forward -- who has the same agent as Hernandez -- hasn't denied that the North American league interests him and his friend Giovani dos Santos is already at LA Galaxy.

But whereas his former Chivas teammate Chicharito's stock continues to rise and MLS is something more likely when he is north of 30, Vela's is slipping, in both Mexico and Europe.

The one redeeming factor is that Vela, at 27, still has time to turn it around. Whether he has the desire or inclination, only the next couple of years will tell.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.


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