As the sun began to set at Banc of California Stadium, Los Angeles Football Club supporters were looking for a reason to cheer.
The score was 1-1 in their game against the Vancouver Whitecaps and a playoff spot was on the line. As they watched the game, fans also eagerly eyed the LAFC bench, waiting for one man to enter.
Shouts of “We want Vela” could be heard in the stadium throughout the match. The crowd grew anxious as time ticked on in the second half. Supporters wondered if their cornerstone player would see the field.
Then in the 70th minute, their wishes came true. Vela was in.
As Carlos Vela took off his pink pinny and put on his trademark number 10 jersey, the crowd erupted in applause.
Chants of “Vela, Vela, Vela” consumed the stands as he sprinted onto the field in the midst of the tied game.
It was the superstar’s second game back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for 11 straight games. In both games he has come off the bench in a substitution role.
This season, he has missed a total of 14 games. The team has a 5-5-4 record in his absence, averaging 1.78 goals per game. This season, Vela has five goals with five assists.
“I noticed when [Vela] is not playing the team does suffer,” LAFC fan Anthony Avilar said. “Vela’s impact will motivate the team and boost their morale so they can make the playoffs.”
LAFC need Vela to return to his stellar 2018 and 2019 season form. In those seasons, the soccer star led LAFC to a top three finish in their inaugural 2018 season and a first place finish in 2019.
In 2018, Vela led the team with 14 goals and 13 assists. He was one of five players in the league to have at least 10 goals and assists.
In 2019, Vela had one of the greatest seasons in MLS history, with 35 goals and 16 assists. He still holds the league record for most goals and assists in one season, as well as the most goals in a season by any MLS player. Through his offensive explosion, LAFC won the Supporters Shield, given to the team with the most points in the regular season, in just their second season in existence.
Since then, Vela has dealt with lingering injuries. In 2020, Vela played only seven games due to a knee injury. He had four goals and a single assist that season. With Vela missing much of the year, LAFC finished in seventh place and were defeated in the first round of playoffs.
Since he missed so much time in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, LAFC sought to replace Vela’s on-field value in the transfer market.
The club brought in Cristian Arango, a forward from Columbia, who has helped them stay in the playoff race. In 16 games played, Arango has 13 goals and two assists. The team has scored few goals this season overall. Even with the playing time Vela has missed in 2021, he is second in goals for the team.
After a draw against Vancouver, LAFC’s playoff hopes have dwindled. Two points out of a playoff spot with just a game to go, the team will need to win against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday. They also need the Los Angeles Galaxy or Vancouver Whitecaps to lose. It would be the first time the team missed the playoffs since their inception.