LOS ANGELES (AP) — Carlos Vela was intrigued and surprised when Los Angeles Football Club approached him several weeks ago to join an MLS expansion franchise that doesn't have a uniform, a completed stadium or any other players.
"It's crazy and it's strange," Vela said. "It's like, 'OK, I can play alone if you want.' I'm the first. You feel like they're building the team around you. I feel cool, you know?"
Vela will have to get used to feeling strange and cool as he embarks on this unique journey with LAFC.
For instance, during his introductory news conference Friday, the Mexican winger received a T-shirt with his name on it from LAFC co-owner Will Ferrell while standing under the Space Shuttle Endeavour inside the California Science Center, just across the park from LAFC's under-construction arena, which will be ready in March.
The 28-year-old Vela is now the centerpiece of a franchise with only one player so far, but deep pockets and global ambition.
The charismatic speedster brings a scoring acumen honed over the last six years at La Liga's Real Sociedad. He will stay with that San Sebastian club through January before moving stateside.
"I think it was the right moment to come here, because the ambition of this team is very good," Vela said. "The people make me feel like this is my club, like I am important, and I want to be an important player. I hope I can be one of the best players in the league."
While Vela is taking a financially rewarding leap of faith, LAFC coach Bob Bradley is eager to build a team with Vela as its foundation.
"It's a statement that reaffirms what the club is all about — the values, the connection with the city," said Bradley, who joined the franchise two weeks ago. "And it's a statement about what we want our football to be like, because when you have a player like Carlos who's capable of scoring great goals, of setting up great goals — a player that when he has the ball at his feet, the stadium rises because you know good things will happen — this is what we want to be about."
Vela's combination of world-class finishing skills and Mexican heritage made him nearly ideal for LAFC's plans to make a splash in the nation's second-largest city, particularly among its vast Latino population. Vela said he has been interested in playing in Los Angeles for years, but it is even more intriguing now because his extended Mexican family can easily visit his 8-month-old son, Romeo, and his Spanish girlfriend, Saioa Canibano.
"It's very important, because you have a lot of Mexicans in LA, and you feel like you're at home," Vela said. "All the people love LA. All my friends are jealous because I am here."
While Mexican national team coach Juan Carlos Osorio has encouraged his top players to compete in Europe, Vela had no qualms about moving to MLS after speaking with Giovani Dos Santos, his El Tri teammate and a forward for the LA Galaxy.
Although Vela is now crosstown rivals with Dos Santos and his younger brother, Galaxy midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos, he thinks this town is big enough for three good friends on two clubs.
"Gio told me all the great things about the league, about the city, about the country," Vela said. "He said it was all good, and I said, 'Why not?'"
Vela has spent his entire professional career in Europe, starting at Arsenal and moving on loan to several clubs before logging the past six seasons at Sociedad. Vela and LAFC general manager John Thorrington both said that Vela had been pursued by several teams during the summer transfer window, attracting interest in Spain, Italy and England.
"Not only did we choose him, but he chose us in the face of competition from other clubs," Thorrington said.
After attending a rally on Friday with fans of his new club, Vela is headed back to Spain to prepare for Sociedad's season opener next weekend. He'll have his eyes on LAFC's progress this fall, but he intends to finish strong in San Sebastian.
"It's a very important year, because I have six months (left) with a team I was playing with for six years," Vela said. "It's very emotional. I want to finish on a high level. I want to leave the team in a high position, and then it's off to the new club to fight to win a title."