LOS ANGELES — You might have seen the old photographs from their youth team days at Chivas de Guadalajara in 2003. One of them shows Carlos Vela (then 14 years old) and Javier "Chicharito" Hernández (then 15) on a field together, so inconsequential that their uniform numbers are 125 and 101, their baby faces framed by glorious amounts of hair—and hair product. Another shows them in a team photo, Vela standing behind a squatting Chicharito, both of them wearing semi-fake tough-guy looks that everyone who was ever a teenage soccer player knows all too well.
Soccer is different from other pro sports. The presence of youth academies means that players who meet at age 14 can end up playing together into their 30s. Vela, now 30, and Chicharito, now 31, have done that with the Mexican national team, though their club careers diverged from those early days at Chivas. They both went to Europe—Vela at Arsenal and Real Sociedad; Chicharito at Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, West Ham and Sevilla—before finally returning to North America.
Specifically, returning to Los Angeles, where Chicharito’s arrival with the LA Galaxy this week means he and Vela—the reigning MLS MVP with LAFC—will now be the biggest stars in one of the most heated club rivalries in the Americas.
Vela had no problem going down memory lane about those early days with Chicharito in Guadalajara–and looking ahead to what's in store in 2020 and beyond with both now not only in the same league but the same city.
“It was a long, long time ago,” Vela told SI with a smile. “We were together at Chivas, with the youth team. I was 14, he was 15. And since then we’ve had similar careers in the sense that we went to Europe, then with the national team, the World Cup. So we’ve lived similar moments, and now that he comes here we’ll be sharing the city, and that hasn’t happened since being in Guadalajara.
“Now after many years, we’re more mature, with families, so it will be a different experience, but also a nice one,” Vela continued. “Obviously, it’s a positive thing to have people you like, that you admire, near you. And to be able to compete against him will help me to try and be better than him, and together we’ll push each other to reach a higher level.”
The LAFC-LA Galaxy rivalry went to a fever pitch last season that culminated in LAFC’s victory over the Galaxy in the MLS quarterfinals, a game that spiked TV ratings and added to the culture that is making L.A. the epicenter of American soccer. But the vibe of the rivalry will change in 2020. It has to. There was a hard edge to the public statements about Vela and LAFC from ex-Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose final act in MLS was to grab his crotch in front of LAFC fans as he left the field last October.
The buzz will still be there this year, but Chicharito doesn’t figure to make any personal attacks or do any crotch-grabbing. How big a change will it be in Vela’s mind to have Chicharito in a Galaxy uniform compared to Ibra?
“Extremely,” Vela said. “I think they’re two very different people. But to me, one is not better than the other. Both motivate me to be better than them and to try and make my team the best in the city. So for me it’s always important to play against great players because it helps me grow and try to improve every day.”
But is it even possible for Vela to improve on his season in 2019? He scored an MLS-record 34 goals in the regular season and had 15 assists as well as LAFC blew away the competition in the regular-season standings. But it still sticks in Vela’s craw that LAFC lost at home in the MLS semifinals to Seattle, which went on to win the MLS Cup title.
“In this life anything is possible,” Vela said about his 2020 goals. “I come with this mentality, with the attitude to be better than last year. But the biggest thing is to be better as a group, because we have ended without the championship. And to me, it’s the most important title and trophy I’d like to have, and to help my team in order to get it.”
If you sit down with Vela’s LAFC coach, Bob Bradley, he’ll tell you that he had a similar approach in helping build his expansion team at LAFC to the way he helped build his championship-winning Chicago Fire expansion team back in 1998. The idea was to create an identity for the team that fit the city. In that way, you could make a rough comparison of Vela to Peter Nowak for the Fire in those days.
Ask Vela to describe the identity of LAFC, and he says this: “It’s a team that started from nothing. Every year it’s improved. We aim to play entertaining soccer, always looking to attack and score goals, and for people to enjoy it. I think that’s something the team has done. Our games are always entertaining with lots of goals, and we look at have a good time but also offer a good time. I think that’s something people are thankful for, and that’s why we have the fans that we have.
“I enjoy every moment here,” he added. “I like this city a lot. There are a lot of Mexican people, so I feel like I’m in my own country.”
Those Mexican people in L.A. now include Chicharito. And it’s Vela and his friend from childhood who may well be the defining topic of the 2020 MLS season.