Gareth Bale may need MLS and LAFC more than they need him

It’s a sign of the league’s progress than it no longer relies on aging foreign stars to make its teams relevant

Gareth Bale needed a new home. This has been true for a while, even when he was still under contract at Real Madrid, where the Welshman became something of an unwanted figure towards the end of a nine-year spell in Spain. Los Angeles should be a more welcoming environment for Bale, not least because California boasts some of the best golf courses in the United States.

The jokes write themselves about a player who once famously waved a flag that read ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order’, but there are solid reasons for Bale to be in LA. The 32-year-old is counting on Los Angeles FC to help him prepare for the 2022 World Cup, a potentially career-defining tournament for a player who has already won five Champions League titles, three La Liga titles and scored more than 100 goals for Real Madrid. Wales need Bale to be fit and firing by November (when they open their World Cup campaign against, appropriately enough, the US). There’s history to be made.

See you soon, Los Angeles. 👊 @LAFC @LAFC3252

— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) June 25, 2022

It’s also easy to make assumptions about a club, and a league, that has attracted an ageing European star whose professional commitment has been recently questioned. MLS has been stung in the past by players that see the league as one final pay check before calling it a day. News of LAFC’s latest signing generated fresh ‘retirement league’ jibes.

But Bale isn’t a typical ‘retirement league’ signing. LAFC haven’t acquired him to be the beating heart of their team. Their fortunes aren’t tied to the success or failure of the transfer. In fact, Steve Cherundolo’s team are currently the best in MLS, sitting top of the Western Conference. They don’t necessarily need Bale.

Bale isn’t even a Designated Player, joining LAFC on a Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) deal instead. The front office mechanics of this have yet to be truly revealed, with former Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini also joining the club on a similar deal this summer, but it’s clear LAFC have found a way to fit Bale into their existing strategy without any drastic alterations.

This is in stark contrast to Toronto FC’s capture of Lorenzo Insigne, for instance. The Italy international agreed to join the club on a four-year deal worth a mammoth $60m earlier this year, but only arrived in Toronto last week. He isn’t expected to play a match for his new team until 9 July. Meanwhile, TFC have just 18 points from 16 games this season. They are waiting for Insigne to turn things around almost single-handedly. Their place in the playoffs depends on it.

Memories of players like Steven Gerrard, who never fully committed to MLS and added to the ‘retirement league’ image, linger. But David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and many others prove there can still be a place for veteran figures. In the right team and in the right circumstances, they can offer plenty. This is the bet LAFC have placed on Bale.

Depending on how much freedom Bale has to regulate his own game time, it’s possible he could be a peripheral figure for LAFC in the build-up to the 2022 World Cup. Not only will he have to acclimatise to a new team, league and country, he will be cautious about picking up any injuries that could impact him in Qatar. It would be unsurprising if Bale opted to skip road games on artificial turf. His knees could do without that sort of strain.

Cherundolo’s 4-3-3 formation will give Bale the option of playing on the left or right. It’s even possible he could operate through the middle to give LAFC a different dimension. Between Bale and Carlos Vela, Cherundolo will have one of the most fluid attacks in the league. This is daunting enough without even mentioning Cristian Arango and Brian Rodriguez.

Off the ball, though, there are questions over how Bale will fare. LAFC are an aggressive defensive side and Bale isn’t exactly known for his tracking back. Only three of Real Madrid’s 26-man squad registered fewer tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes than Bale last season. His new LAFC teammates may have to compensate for this inability, or unwillingness, to press.

In many ways, Bale needs MLS more than it needs him, which says something about the development of the league over the last 15 years or so. The Welshman requires first-team football at a high enough level to will keep him sharp, but not break him, before the World Cup this winter. Bale needs to get his club career back on track. The stakes aren’t so high for MLS.

It may not be until 2023 that LAFC see the best of Bale, and even then he could struggle to build consistency with the season starting in February and the Welshman’s initial 12-month contract, which is believed to have an option for an extension, up in July. But even if Bale only offers a glimpse of his brilliance during a short stint in MLS, LAFC will benefit. If that happens, and Bale arrives in Qatar in peak physical condition, both parties will have got what they wanted.


Graham Ruthven

The GuardianTramp

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