Carlos Vela is leaving Europe for the U.S.: what does that mean for Mexico?
It's the start of a crucial period in Mexico forward Carlos Vela's career. As the 28-year-old makes his way to Brussels on Monday with the rest of the Mexico national team ahead of Friday's friendly against Belgium, he'll do so in the knowledge that it will very likely be the last time he joins El Tri as a Europe-based player. As 2018 approaches, Vela's six-and-a-half-year stint with Real Sociedad will come to an end and the forward will make the move across the Atlantic to join MLS debutants Los Angeles FC.
It hasn't been a smooth season so far for Vela at Sociedad, perhaps in part because of his imminent move stateside. The former Arsenal forward, who controversially opted not to play for Mexico at the 2014 World Cup when he was in the best form of his career, hasn't held the same importance to the team this campaign as in the previous six and has only two starts in La Liga.
As if to accentuate just how much he has fallen out of favor with the club and a manager, in Eusebio Sacristan, who has been effusive in his praise of Vela over the past 12 months, Real Sociedad didn't include the striker's name on the list of club international call-ups for this week, sparking a wave of rumors in Mexico that Vela wouldn't be involved. The rumors turned out to be false.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, LAFC coach Bob Bradley is busy recruiting a side to compete and win in MLS; Vela is obviously a central piece in that. It's widely accepted that Vela could be one of the best players in MLS if he is focused, and Bradley isn't overly concerned about the forward's situation as he counts down the days until the Mexican joins the club.
"No [I'm not worried] because he's still part of the mix [at Real Sociedad]," Bradley told ESPN FC. "He's had some good games for them. I know from our discussions how motivated he is and how up to this challenge he is."
While Vela would likely be playing more if he were contributing more assists and goals, Sacristan has a dilemma surrounding the player. Just as Bradley is planning for life with Vela, Real Sociedad are planning for life without him. Belgium international Adnan Januzaj, recalled for upcoming games against Mexico and Japan, was signed from Manchester United this summer to gradually take over in that creative wide role.
While Vela's current club is testing some possible options, Bradley will be the next coach to try to coax the best out of the forward, a player regarded as the most talented of the generation that won the under-17 World Cup for Mexico in 2005. To that point, Bradley believes Vela can become a "really special" player for LAFC.
"Everyone else I've talked to recognizes what Carlos has done and they see it as an indication of our vision as a club, an idea of what kind of football we want to play," Bradley said. "They see it as a statement about connecting with the city of Los Angeles, the people of Los Angeles and the diversity of Los Angeles. It has really been a good first signing and we're excited to work on the field. This is all just laying the groundwork."
Bradley sees Vela primarily as a right winger and draws comparisons to Bulgaria legend Hristo Stoichkov and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah -- players with whom the former U.S. national team coach worked with the Chicago Fire and Egypt, respectively -- in terms of how they cut in from the right onto their stronger left foot.
"I've watched Carlos for a long time and I know his ability to come inside, score goals and become a playmaker with the kind of passes he can play from those different positions," Bradley said. "I see all of that, but I also know that Carlos is versatile enough so that [he'll contribute] depending on how our team comes together."
El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio has said that players like Vela and LA Galaxy duo Giovani dos Santos and Jonathan dos Santos should be playing in Europe but also suggested that if players are moving to places like MLS, the aim should be to become reference points for the league. Bradley will want the same of Vela and said that once the player leaves Real Sociedad at the end of December, he will be given a break before joining up with the team, taking into account "everything that is going to happen in 2018" with MLS and the World Cup in Russia.
The upcoming friendlies are the last time we'll see Vela with Mexico before the March international break and they come almost exactly three years on from his triumphant return, following a self-enforced exile from the national team in the 3-2 friendly win against Netherlands in Amsterdam. He scored in the eighth minute with a fine left-footed strike from outside the box and added another in the second half.
Those goals almost elevated him to "savior status" after the pain of the 2014 World Cup exit without him. Since then, there have been flashes of brilliance in a Mexico shirt, mixed with some inconsistent performances. It shouldn't be forgotten, however, that there was uproar when Osorio didn't use the Cancun native against Germany in the 4-1 semifinal loss at last summer's Confederations Cup. Similarly, Vela has not been involved in the two heaviest defeats of the manager's spell in charge -- the other being the 7-0 loss to Chile at the 2016 Copa America.
There has been inevitable criticism from a section of Mexico's fans that seems to resent players joining MLS, but Vela will have to take it on the chin. A reminder of just how good he can be against a stacked Belgium or a strong Poland would be a timely retort to his detractors.
Bradley and LAFC make no bones about how important Vela is to their project and, whether fans like it or not, the same holds true for Osorio and Mexico, too.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.