Carlos Vela celebrated his 31st birthday in style Sunday afternoon. His strike off a picture-perfect chip late in the first half against Inter Miami CF held up as the decider in Los Angeles FC’s season opener at Banc of California Stadium.
Vela, the reigning MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner, picked up against the league debutants right where he left off in a record-breaking 2019.
His moment of brilliance came in the 44th minute. First Vela took possession on the right flank, then danced his way toward the penalty area, gliding past Miami defenders as he moved in on goal. His final move was a piece of masterclass: a cheeky chip that floated into the back of the net over the reach of goalkeeper Luis Robles.
It was a huge three points, especially coming on the heels of a monumental comeback in the Concacaf Champions League against Club Leon Thursday night.
“After the effort of Thursday, winning today is a real team win,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “Passing wasn’t as sharp, our pressing wasn’t as committed and as intense, Miami put a lot into it, and we get just an amazing goal.”
LAFC held on for the 1-0 victory despite a valiant effort by Miami, which played a competent game in midfield and produced a few chances despite being outshot 21-15 and out-possessed by an almost 3-to-1 margin.
But on a different day, with a couple of better-timed runs, LAFC could have also run away with the contest.
Referee Alan Chapman waved off two LAFC goals for offside.
First came Mark-Anthony Kaye’s in the 9th minute, which came about after he finished a sequence started by Diego Rossi, who was offside on a through ball from Brian Rodriguez. Then came Rossi’s apparent finish 35 seconds into the second half, which was annulled for Rodriguez being a hair offside on the left flank.
Both Rodriguez and Rossi had active matches, with Vela drifting into the attack from the right flank. In fact, the game’s first chance came from the right side, with Rossi heading Vela’s fourth-minute cross at the back post and forcing a sprawling save from Robles.
“This was a tough one because we played on Thursday and you have to be ready to play on Sunday,” Rossi said. “The group had a great mentality because we were able to shift our focus on the league. It was the most important thing to do. It was a good game and great mentality. That was most important.”
Miami grew into the game slowly, with Matias Pellegrini and Rodolfo Pizarro leading the way for the visitors.
LAFC goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer first dropped low to parry a drive from Pellegrini (37th minute), then went to his right to block Pizarro’s flick off a corner kick (42nd minute).
“He a world-class goalie,” Kaye said. “I’m not surprised about anything that he’s done in the games because I’ve seen him do it in training but it’s a big plus having him back there, knowing that he’s able to keep some clean sheets for us.”
Pizarro had Miami’s best chance of the second half as well, but his sliding effort in the heart of the penalty area off Lewis Morgan’s cross bounced wide of the net.
“We played a great game,” Pizarro said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to finish our chances but in the end, it was a great game. The man of the match was their goalkeeper and I think that says a lot about our game.”
But on this day, like so many others at the Banc and elsewhere, Vela was the hero.
“The challenge that we put on everybody after the first game in Leon, and the response, Carlos led the way and scored two important goals on Thursday,” Bradley said. “As we were discussing squad rotation, the discussion I had with him about how we felt was never really going to be in his mind that he was not starting today in our home opener so, that’s just mentality that he brings and the example that he sets.”