Carlos Vela's absence hangs over LAFC as it embarks on new season

LAFC has never started an MLS season without Carlos Vela on its roster.

That could change Saturday afternoon when the reigning Western Conference champions face the Seattle Sounders at BMO Stadium since Vela, the team’s longtime captain and all-time leader in goals and assists, remains unsigned.

But there’s still hope. Because not only has Vela failed to move on, he hasn’t even moved out.

“He still has his locker there with all his stuff,” defender Aaron Long said Thursday at the team’s training site. “Maybe there’s something that can get worked out.”

For the time being, Vela is a victim of an MLS salary structure that punishes teams for being successful — and no MLS team has been more successful than LAFC since it entered the league with Vela in 2018.

Many players have bonus packages that become quite lucrative if teams make long playoff runs, and LAFC has made the MLS Cup final the last two seasons. The team also made the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League and Campeones Cup last year, triggering other bonuses — all of which count against the league’s salary cap of $5.7 million.

So the better LAFC does on the field, the harder it becomes for general manager John Thorrington to keep the team together.

“The last two years the value of our players has risen because of their success here,” Thorrington said. “Managing a salary cap gets incredibly tight. So you combine the value of those players going up [and] money shrinking, in effect, and it makes it really difficult for us to compete for free agents.”

Vela made nearly $4.4 million in the final year of his contract last season, although as a designated player just a portion of that salary counted against the cap. And he wasn’t the only one affected. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who played key roles in LAFC’s success, also left as free agents, part of an exodus that saw 14 players depart.

The year before that the team lost 10 players from its league championship team, among them leading scorer Cristian Arango and MLS Cup hero Gareth Bale, who were both sacrificed to the salary cap.

“Those are the rules,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “We know the rules and we try to proceed even though those rules make it difficult to build a dynasty or build a roster over multiple years.”

In other parts of the world success is rewarded with additional TV revenue and big-money purses for qualifying for continental tournaments, money those teams can plow back into their rosters, assuring the rich continue to get richer. That’s why Bayern Munich has won 11 consecutive Bundesliga titles and Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have won five of the last six titles in France and the U.K., respectively.

MLS salary rules, meanwhile, were written to promote parity, which is why only one team has won consecutive titles in the last 15 years. LAFC can buck that trend by making it to a third straight MLS Cup final this fall, something no team has done this century.

“We don’t allow ourselves to have the rules as an excuse,” midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “We always try to find the best solutions to build a very strong roster. Two seasons in a row we’ve been able to get to the final game. It’s something that we will try to repeat.”

But there will be little room for error. Denis Bouanga, who led MLS with 20 goals last season, returns and the team has replaced Crepeau with Hugo Lloris, the former captain of the French national team. Colombia’s Eduard Atuesta, 26, returns after two seasons with Brazilian club Palmeiras to take Acosta’s spot in the midfield and the team also added Mexican defender Omar Campos, 21, and Colombian forward Tomás Ángel, 21.

“Depth is our weakness,” Cherundolo said. “I feel really good about our first group and then we’re pretty young. [It] will be a challenge to stay healthy. Injuries will happen and how we get out of those when they happen and how many there are kind of determines your success.”

The return of Vela, who turns 35 next week, would help. What seems more likely, however, is that his return will be limited to the time it takes him to clean out his locker. In MLS, success comes with heavy a price.

“Look, he was here for six years, he was our captain. Of course, he’s gonna have a presence,” Cherundolo said. “We don’t erase people out of our memory here. I hope he will be back.

“The door’s always open for him.”


Feb. 24: vs. Seattle, 1:30 p.m.

March 2: at Real Salt Lake, 11 a.m.; 9: vs. Sporting K.C., 7:30 p.m.; 16: at Minnesota, 5:30 p.m.; 23: vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.; 30: at Colorado, 1 p.m.

April 6: vs. Galaxy, 4:30 p.m.; 13: at Portland, 1:30 p.m.; 20: vs. N.Y. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.; 27: vs. Portland, 7:30 p.m.

May 4: vs. San Jose at Levi’s Stadium, 4:30 p.m.; 11: vs. Vancouver, 7:30 p.m.; 15: at St. Louis, 5:30 p.m.; 25: at Atlanta, 4:30 p.m.; 29: vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

June: 1: vs. Dallas, 7:30 p.m.; 15: at Orlando, 4:30 p.m.; 19: at Austin, 5:30 p.m.; 22: vs. San Jose, 7:30 p.m.; 29: vs. Colorado, 7:30 p.m.

July: 4: vs. Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, 7:30 p.m.; 7: at Houston, 5:30 p.m.; 13: vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.; 17: vs. Real Salt Lake, 7:30 p.m.; 20: at Seattle, 7:30 p.m.

Aug, 24: at Vancouver, 4:30 p.m.; 31: vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14: at Galaxy, 7:30 p.m.; 18: vs. Austin, 7:30 p.m.; 21: at Dallas, 5:30 p.m.; 28: at Cincinnati, 4:30 p.m.

Oct: 2: vs. St. Louis, 7:30 p.m.; 6: at Sporting K.C., 5:30 p.m.; 19: vs. San Jose, 6 p.m.

All times Pacific

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