From the start to his team's earlier-than-hoped-for finish, MLS's 2019 season belonged to Carlos Vela.
LAFC's record-setting forward received the league MVP award that was fully expected on Monday, putting a fitting end to his 34-goal, 15-assist season. Vela would surely trade that award for MLS Cup success, but he'll settle for the biggest individual award the league has instead.
Given that he had his hand in more than or as many goals as nine teams, it stands to reason that Vela's victory was a foregone conclusion. He bested two other big-name strikers that in any other year would have wrestled for the award, though. In setting records and outlasting those two formidable challengers, Vela reset the standard for what can be expected from an individual in MLS.
In Josef Martinez, Atlanta United's star forward and the MVP recipient in 2018 after his record-setting season, Vela beat a player who set a new MLS mark with an outrageous 15-match scoring streak and rekindled the defending champions' title defense.
In Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Vela defeated a crosstown, big-talking rival, one who scored 30 goals and was at the heart of everything the Galaxy did in the attack, scoring over half of his team's 58 goals.
His own eye-opening numbers aside, that Vela was able to substantially edge such worthy competitors–between them they turned in three of the top four all-time single-season goal-scoring seasons in MLS–gives even more clout to his success. He earned over 69% of the weighted vote conducted by players, media and club personnel (earning 80% of the player vote), storming is way to success much like he did on a game-to-game basis this season.
Vela's award also bucks a recent trend in MLS. Individual success hasn't led to team trophies much in league history–especially in the most recent years. Only eight previous MLS MVP winners had come from Supporters' Shield-winning teams, and only four have come from MLS Cup winners. The most recent Supporters' Shield winner to also claim league MVP honors before Vela was Chris Wondolowski, and that was seven years ago, in 2012.
Before Wondolowski, it was Columbus's Guillermo Barros Schelotto in 2008; D.C.'s Luciano Emilio in 2007 and Christian Gomez in 2006; LA's Carlos Ruiz in 2002; Miami's Alex Pineda Chacon in 2001; Kansas City's Tony Meola in 2000; and Tampa Bay's Carlos Valderamma in the inaugural 1996 season.
Schelotto, Ruiz and Meola went on to win MLS Cup as well in those MVP-caliber years, while Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy, 2014) is the only non-Shield winner to earn the award in an MLS Cup-winning season.
There are plenty of reasons for the lack of translation from award to team success. MLS Cup has proven to have elements of randomness to it over the years, with the best regular-season teams not always capturing the postseason tournament. The Shield-Cup double has long been a rarity. The Shield winner also won MLS Cup in four of the first seven MLS seasons. It's only happened three times since (2008, 2011, 2017)
Perhaps there is just more, high-caliber individual talent spread out around the league these days. There are definitely more teams, and thus more viable candidacies than there were 10 years ago. Perhaps leaving for international duty has hampered some players' individual seasons. That Vela has effectively chosen not to play for Mexico anymore surely boosted his domestic league capabilities.
Whatever the reason, there's no denying this was the Year of Carlos Vela. He averaged a goal every 80 minutes in the regular season (and a goal every 90 minutes in the postseason, though he was blanketed by the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference final). He smashed records and led the best regular-season team MLS has ever seen.
When he was absent, his team felt the domino effect. After he suffered a hamstring injury as part of LAFC's 3-3 draw with the Galaxy, his team subsequently went on to lose its only home game during the regular season (to Minnesota United) and scrapped its way to a draw against lowly Orlando City. Upon his return, he scored the equalizing goals in a pair of draws.
Perhaps his most astounding accomplishment was that he improved on last season's solid return of 14 goals with an improvement of 20 in just three more games and 348 more minutes. It's safe to say Vela has figured out MLS. The only question going forward, for as long as the 30-year-old remains in the league, is whether opposing defenders can figure him out in response.