April 16, 2024

He was the first player in LAFC history, and has been the best.

If the franchise ever erects statues in Exposition Park, the first will be made in his image.

Carlos Vela is LAFC.

Saturday night, when LAFC hosts the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference finals, the 34-year-old Vela could be playing his final home game at BMO Stadium.

This isn’t because Vela wants to retire.

This isn’t because Vela wants to move to another team.

This is because of Major League Soccer’s outdated salary structure.

“I want [to return],” Vela said. “But I don’t decide that.”

Sentimentality is often a casualty in leagues with salary caps, but this is especially the case in MLS, in which roster-compliance rules allow for minimal flexibility on how teams can spend money.

Every MLS team can have as many as three designated players, each of whom can be paid as much as the club wants but counts for only $651,250 against its $5.21-million salary cap.

The most any other player can earn is less than $1.7 million.

“My part is there,” Vela said. “But if the other part doesn’t work or doesn’t work in the way that I want, I won’t be here.”

As one of LAFC’s two designated players — leading scorer Dénis Bouanga is the other — Vela was guaranteed $4.4 million this season. LAFC wants Vela back, just not necessarily as a designated player.

As a team with championship ambitions that’s also determined to raise its international profile, LAFC could be inclined to reserve its top-salary designations for players younger than Vela, who turns 35 in March.

But if Vela is stripped of his status, he would have to take more than a 60% pay cut to return. If Vela balked, would anyone blame him? He might not be the same player he was four years ago when he produced the greatest individual season in league history, but his goals-plus-assists total of 44 over the last two years ranks eighth-best in MLS.

Carlos Vela hoists a trophy as he and teammates celebrate their championship

Carlos Vela hoists the MLS Cup trophy as he and his LAFC teammates celebrate their championship victory over the Philadelphia Union at BMO Stadium on Nov. 5, 2022.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

League regulations offer no room for compromise.

None of this feels conducive to helping build the tradition of a relatively young team in a relatively young league.

Older players such as Vela aren’t the only victims of the salary structure. Consider the case of Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson. A former No. 2 draft pick, the 26-year-old Robinson is a center back who has made 27 appearances for the U.S. national team. Robinson earned $1.4 million this year and therefore can’t receive a significant salary increase unless United makes him a designated player. But all three of United’s designated player slots are spoken for, and Robinson is expected to leave the team when his contract expires at the end of the year.

There was a time when these financial guardrails were necessary, when MLS had to prevent runaway spending that could threaten its very existence. That’s no longer the case. MLS might not be mainstream, but it’s considerably more stable than it used to be, with the overwhelming majority of teams playing in soccer-specific stadiums.

Why not give teams the freedom to build their rosters in ways that not only would allow them to better connect with their fans, but also make them more competitive internationally? When LAFC lost to León of Mexico in the CONCACAF Champions League final, coach Steve Cherundolo said that if MLS wanted its teams to win international tournaments, it would have to rethink its roster rules.

For his part, Vela projected calm while talking about his future.

Asked if he would take an extra moment to take in the scene at the BMO Stadium on Saturday, he said, “I don’t take it, like, maybe it’s the last time.”

Vela appeared in every one of LAFC’s 34 regular-season games this year, scoring nine goals and registering 12 assists.

Carlos Vela controls the ball during a playoff match against the Galaxy in October 2022.

Carlos Vela controls the ball during a playoff match against the Galaxy in October 2022.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

“I always say I can play better, I can score more goals, I can give more assists,” he said. “But sometimes that doesn’t happen. You do other things that maybe people, or even you, don’t see or value as much as scoring goals.

“In the end, I’m happy with my season.”

Arguably the greatest Mexican player of his generation, Vela scored an MLS record 34 goals in 2019 and won an MLS Cup last year. He is the only player from LAFC’s inaugural season still on the team.

“We’re still having success,” Vela said. “We’re still there, we’re still fighting for a championship. Every tournament we play, we’re always one of the favorites. I think it’s because I’m doing the right things.”

He said he wanted to continue to do so.

“I love L.A.,” he said. “I want to still be in L.A.”

MLS should be facilitating Vela’s return to LAFC, not obstructing it. The league should want an iconic player to remain with his team, not for him to be dumped over a technicality. The league has changed and its rules should too.

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