- Carlos Vela is well into his prime years, while Diego Rossi has yet to really reach the beginning of his, but the two stars share a common goal and a prominent place in guiding MLS's newest franchise, and they've formed a connection from the start.
In many ways, despite their roughly nine-year age gap, Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi possess similar obstacles. Both Designated Player signings for MLS expansion club LAFC are newcomers to the league, and both come to the U.S. with similar levels of expectation. Fortunately for LAFC, they have already begun to taking to one another and appear set to take on the challenge as a tandem.
Vela has been in Rossi's shoes, after all. The 29-year-old already knows what it’s like to leave your home country at an early age and learn a new culture in order to kick-start a playing career. He was only 16 when Arsenal signed him from Chivas, and his entire club life has been spent in Europe, which included loan spells to Salamanca, Osasuna, West Brom and finally Real Sociedad, which is where he finally settled for six seasons before coming to L.A. Now, Rossi, who turns 20 on Monday, sets out on a similar path–leaving a giant club at home for the unknown.
“I have more experience with changing teams and moving to another country, so I try and help him adapt to his new life as fast as possible,” says Vela, who spends time off the field with Rossi as he accustoms to a new life in America. He even helped him with necessities, such as getting a driver’s license and looking for a house. “You know that here in the United States things can be more complicated, dealing with banks, driver’s license, so because I’ve come here more often, I have more experience and I can help.”
Vela, however, is also learning more and more about Los Angeles, so he admits that for a lot of the questions Rossi asks, he can’t answer and needs a little help himself.
“Most of the time, especially if he asks me about where to go and eat, I have to call Gio (LA Galaxy’s Giovani Dos Santos), so I’m lucky he can tell me the best and worst places.”
On Sunday, LAFC, the first MLS expansion club to enter the league alone since the Montreal Impact arrived in 2012, plays its first competitive match against last season’s MLS Cup runner-up, the Seattle Sounders, at CenturyLink Field. For manager Bob Bradley, who has guided an MLS expansion team to the top before, this match has historic significance, but it’s also a unique opportunity to showcase what LAFC’s philosophy is all about from the jump.
“With a new team, a new club, that first match is something that is so important,” Bradley said. “You want to make a strong first impression, make sure all of our great supporters see the kind of work and what kind of team we want to build.”
Consequently, it’s no surprise that in order to keep building, Bradley must not only deepen his 20-man squad but also develop a strong chemistry between his players, and for DPs like Vela and Rossi, forming a bond becomes a crucial piece of the puzzle.
“On the field so far I think there’s a very good understanding (between Vela and Rossi),” Bradley said. “Good players have a way of connecting quickly when they’re playing with other good players.”
Vela knows that his role with LAFC is not just about performing well, but it’s also about becoming the face of a franchise that has a growing Mexican-American fan base. Barring any injuries or a dramatic change of heart by Juan Carlos Osorio, Vela will be part of Mexico's squad for the World Cup, so his immediate form with LAFC and bringing Rossi up to speed with him have become that much more important.
“I think the dream and hunger of creating a beautiful story with this new club is something that prepares us and pushes us to start the league in a good way,” Vela said. “Diego is a young guy who hasn’t had that long of a career, but he has great characteristics, and luckily he now comes to a league and a club where we want to help him, and nurture his potential. He can be a player of world-class level.”
Peñarol is known for developing players who believe in a do-or-die, hard-working mentality, so it’s no surprise that Vela already sees those qualities in his teammate.
“He’s such a great person. Quiet, hard-working, humble, and obviously because we both speak Spanish we have already built a good relationship, and I’m sure you’ll see that on the field,” Vela said.
Many around the club, who see the Uruguayan as more than just a young talent, share Vela’s thoughts on Rossi’s maturity.
“Everybody seems to think and say–and this is what I’ve seen–he’s mature beyond his years,” said LAFC co-owner and president Tom Penn, who was a guest on Planet Futbol TV this week. “He seems like an older soul, he’s pressure-packed from Peñarol where he performed at such a high level, such a big club under intense pressure, and he’s here and comfortable, assimilating, his English improves everyday, and when he steps on the field it seems seamless. It’s going to be fun to see him and Carlos working together, because there’s already a chemistry and connection.”
Rossi is not surprised many call him an “old soul.” It’s actually something he has heard most of his life.
“I’ve heard that many times, and I can honestly say that it’s just the way I am,” says Rossi, who also attributes his mature personality to Peñarol and how he learned to play the game. “I played for the biggest club in Uruguay, and that required me to be like that, to be mature and adapt. I think the other obvious reason is my family and how I was raised.”
Now in Los Angeles, Rossi is settled with his wife in their new home and confirms how Vela helped him ease with the transition.
“He’s been able to guide me in this city, with myself new to the country, so I’ve asked him and (LAFC forward) Marco Ureña so many things, and both have helped me so much,” says Rossi, laughing as he realizes he probably asks so many questions during training. “I’m always asking him (Vela) during the day ‘Where should I go and eat?’ And he’s always so humble, ready to help me out. It’s so great to have him as a teammate and have a great relationship with him outside of the pitch. The truth is that it’s great for young players such as myself to learn from him.”
Having represented his country at the U-17 and U-20 levels but not yet the senior national team, Rossi enters MLS as part of the future of the league, and it's a chance for him to be noticed on a larger scale.
“From the first time I watched him in Uruguay, it’s obvious that he’s got a lot of talent,” says Bradley. “Diego has had an excellent preseason. We can use him from either side on the attack. We can play him more in the middle, he’s versatile and I’m excited for him to get going. I think he’s going to settle in and be a very important player for us.”
A club’s success depends on so much more than just two players, and it would be naïve to suggest that LAFC’s season solely hinges on the chemistry between Vela and Rossi. But when it comes to expansion MLS teams, the need for their main players to get off on the right foot is important, because the tone they set trickles down to everyone else. Last year, Atlanta United's season was not just about Miguel Almirón, Josef Martinez and Héctor Villalba, but their chemistry and production created a foundation upon which the club built a playoff run in Year 1.
LAFC is hoping its accomplished talent and its old soul can do the same in 2018.