Why MLS Cup final could be Carlos Vela’s goodbye to LAFC

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Dec. 8, 2023 12:52 a.m. ET

Carlos Vela is the best player Major League Soccer club LAFC has ever had. He is beloved like no other among the fans and set up the team’s route to Saturday’s MLS Cup final. He wants to stay for at least another year and the team would like to keep him.

So far, so easy.

Yet the growing likelihood is that this weekend’s title-determining road clash with the Columbus Crew (coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET on FOX and FOX Deportes, as well as the FOX Sports app) could be his last wearing black and gold colors, due to complex reasons that sit right at the nexus between MLS’ fight-for-survival past and its financially eye-popping present.

Last Saturday, Vela’s corner kick created confusion in the Houston Dynamo penalty area, eventually allowing LAFC teammate Ryan Hollingshead to strike home the opening goal in a 2-0 victory in the Western Conference final.

Before the end, head coach Steve Cherundolo took Vela off, allowing him to receive a standing ovation from his army of home fans for what might be the last time.

“I am shelving my feelings and emotions until after the MLS Cup final,” Cherundolo told reporters, with a nostalgic smile that suggested he hasn’t really been able to shelve those thoughts at all. “Knowing Carlos, and all the players on our team, they would do the same in order to raise a trophy.”

[MLS Cup 2023: How to watch LAFC vs. Columbus Crew and what to watch for]

Vela’s possible departure arises from the fact that – in keeping with his status as the club’s first-ever signing when it was formed six years ago and his role as one of Mexico’s best players of the past decade – he makes $4.4 million per year on his current deal.

MLS teams operate with a strict salary cap of $5.21 million, but exceptions can be made for “designated players,” who can be paid any amount yet will count only around $650,000 against the cap.

LAFC, which is valued by Forbes at more than $1 billion, has ample resources to pay Vela, but he is 34 and the club, seeking back-to-back titles, has big ambitions. With one of its three designated spots already earmarked for the sensational Gabonese forward Denis Bouanga, using another on Vela would restrict the flexibility to either acquire a new star or bring in a younger contributor.

If Vela does not take up a designated slot, the maximum he could be paid under league regulations would be $1.7 million, a drop that he is entitled to be unimpressed with.

“Vela has come to represent LAFC in every way, on and off the field,” FOX soccer analyst Alexi Lalas told me. “They couldn’t have had a better ambassador and they’ve gotten the best of him – if you look at his career trajectory, it is fair to say this has been his most successful stop.

“But the club wants to move forward, the reality is there is a salary cap, and that reality creates a real problem.”

MLS has always found itself at another intersection, between the time-honored principles of American sports and the differing realities of how soccer leagues around the world operate.

Salaries are far different now compared to the days in 2007 when David Beckham was earning millions alongside teammates making $12,000 a year and eating at the McDonald’s dollar menu to scrape by.

Yet still, abandoning the salary cap altogether would be a big, bold and possibly unwise leap for MLS, even with soccer’s American reach and profitability only likely to grow over the next few years, with a raft of huge events highlighted by the 2026 World Cup, the 2024 Copa America, the 2025 Club World Cup and likely the 2027 Women’s World Cup coming to these shores.

The situation leaves LAFC with a brutally tough decision to make and sets up an intriguing under-the-radar battle between old-school team owners who remember the prior need for constant frugality and new investors – described by Lalas, former president of the LA Galaxy from 2006 to 2008, as the “nouveau riche brigade” – who believe spending big is the only way to prosper.

“MLS has become the most successful American soccer league in history for a reason, and it’s not going to throw all that out,” Lalas added. “But some of the restrictions have been eased and I think we will see more of that, maybe more designated spots added, as the league continues to grow and evolve.”

MLS Cup Final Preview: Columbus vs LAFC! | SOTU

If changes do come, they will probably be too late to help Vela, whose 2019 effort of scoring 34 goals remains an all-time MLS single-season record. He has also guided the team to two Supporters Shields (best regular season record) and the 2022 MLS Cup.

Even beyond that, he has played a role in helping LAFC become one of the most dynamic franchises in MLS, wresting away Los Angeles’ soccer soul from the longer-established LA Galaxy.

The Vela scenario and the likelihood of it being a farewell is one of the key subplots to Saturday’s contest at Columbus’ Lower.com Field. Another twist is that the Crew, as a founder member of the league, in some ways represents the old guard, while LAFC, in its short span, has shown no deference for tradition.

Last year’s final was a barnstormer, with Gareth Bale helping LAFC secure victory in a thrilling penalty shootout against the Philadelphia Union in a showdown that, all things considered, was a tremendous advertisement for the league.

Something similar this weekend will be welcome. But whatever the result, if it culminates in Vela’s L.A. goodbye, there will be a tinge of sadness.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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