Gareth Bale has been little more than a guest star in his MLS career so far

The 33-year-old has been trying to regain his fitness in the run-up to the World Cup. But he is yet to complete a full 90 minutes for LAFC

Less than 20 minutes into only his second Major League Soccer game, Gareth Bale scored a goal that could have served as a mission statement. Introduced off the bench with Los Angeles FC already 1-0 up against Sporting KC, the Welsh winger, who needs game time to find his best form before the 2022 World Cup, produced a performance that grew sharper with every minute and culminated in a quick transition strike to kill the game at 2-0.

Gareth Bale grabbed his first goal in MLS for LAFC in their victory over Sporting KC 🇺🇸

pic.twitter.com/gwfVe0napi

— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) July 24, 2022

Another typical Bale goal quickly followed in a 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake in which the 33-year-old strode past two opponents at the byline to fire home from a tight angle. Two goals in three appearances off the bench represented a good start to his MLS career, but Bale has struggled to build on this. In fact, he hasn’t scored another goal in the two months since his strike at Rio Tinto Stadium.

In fact, Bale hasn’t even completed a full MLS match, and has started just two of the 12 games he has featured in for LAFC since joining from Real Madrid in June. Steve Cherundolo’s team clinched the Supporters’ Shield with victory over the Portland Timbers on Sunday and will be among the favourites to win this year’s MLS Cup with the playoffs set to start later this month, but Bale has hardly had a hand in their success.

The measure of Bale’s time at LAFC was always likely to be different. As long as he arrives in Qatar for the World Cup in good shape, he will consider his decision to make the move to MLS vindicated. Bale once infamously waved a flag that read “Wales, golf, Madrid – in that order,” and his club might still be at the bottom of the list.

“We have a plan in LA with what we’re doing,” Bale recently said when asked to assess his own impact in MLS. “We’re not doing too much straight away. Every footballer wants to play as much as they can, but we’re being clever and building myself up for the last important part of the season. Hopefully that should put me in great shape for the World Cup. I think I’ll be a lot fitter.”

Wales manager Robert Page’s comments hinted at underlying dissatisfaction at his best player’s situation. “What he does from now until the first game [of the World Cup] against USA … we will be in contact with the club and help manage those minutes,” Page said after bemoaning not being able to use Bale across all 180 minutes against Belgium and Poland in the Nations League due to his lack of fitness.

Page knows Bale can be a difference-maker for Wales in Qatar. He is the country’s all-time top scorer (40 goals in 108 caps) and the player who secured World Cup qualification in the first place, scoring three goals in the playoff semi-finals and final. At his best, Bale can win a match on his own. For Wales, his fitness could be the difference between a last-16 appearance and a group stage exit.

LAFC may not have much incentive to increase Bale’s game time before he heads to Qatar. This may seem somewhat peculiar given the Welshman’s individual quality and record at the elite level of European soccer, but Cherundolo has a system that already works well without Bale and with the playoffs almost here there isn’t much scope for experimentation between now and November.

Many argued Bale’s move to MLS would afford him more freedom to gain fitness and match sharpness than would have been the case in the Premier League or another of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues. However, MLS’s relative parity makes rotation difficult, even for a team like LAFC who appeared a good bet to make the playoffs from early on.

On top of this, MLS’s travel schedule makes the season a gruelling one. In Spain, Bale’s longest away day involved an hour or two on a chartered plane. In the Premier League, most away matches can be reached on a bus. In MLS, though, Bale is regularly travelling across multiple time zones, sometimes on commercial flights.

It may not be until the World Cup is out of the way that MLS sees the best of Bale. Only then will the winger be able to clear his mind and fully commit to life at LAFC with a full pre-season ahead of him to get ready for the 2023 campaign. Even then, Bale could struggle to build momentum as he is only contracted until next summer. A decision on his long-term future will have to be made.

There have been glimpses of brilliance from Bale in MLS, which will have offered encouragement to Page and Wales. At 33, he has lost some of the pace that made him so explosive earlier in his career, but the ability remains. Once Bale has finished making sure Wales can unlock that ability at the World Cup, he may get round to doing the same for LAFC in MLS.

Contributor

Graham Ruthven

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Joy of the playground defined Gareth Bale more than records or trophies
The Wales forward has retired with a glittering CV but it was his breathtaking style which set him apart from the rest

Jonathan Liew

09, Jan, 2023 @9:19 PM

Article image
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

Graham Ruthven

27, Jun, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Gareth Bale announces retirement from football: ‘I have realised my dream’
Gareth Bale has announced his retirement from football after a glittering career with clubs including Real Madrid and more than 100 appearances for Wales

Ben Fisher

09, Jan, 2023 @3:27 PM

Article image
Gareth Bale feels on good World Cup path despite lack of playing time
Gareth Bale has said he is on a ‘good path’ to be in prime condition to lead Wales at the World Cup and that he is building himself up cleverly

Ben Fisher

21, Sep, 2022 @11:18 AM

Article image
Bale and Chiellini make home debuts for LAFC in win over Seattle Sounders
Los Angeles FC beat the Seattle Sounders 2-1 Friday night in the home debuts of European superstars Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini

Agencies

30, Jul, 2022 @6:17 AM

Article image
MLS Cup 2022: LAFC edge Philadelphia on pens after Bale’s 128th-minute goal
Jack McCarthy stopped two penalty kicks as LAFC defeated the Philadelphia Union on penalties, 3-0, after playing to a 3-3 draw to capture the MLS Cup

Joseph D'Hippolito at Banc of California Stadium

05, Nov, 2022 @11:32 PM

Article image
Riqui Puig to LA Galaxy: the biggest summer in MLS history just got bigger
LA Galaxy’s signing of Riqui Puig, the 23-year-old recently seen as Barca’s next big thing, is the latest stroke in a talent influx that’s included Bale, Bernardeschi and Insigne

Graham Ruthven

05, Aug, 2022 @7:30 AM

Article image
‘I have many years to come’: Bale targets Euro 2024 after checking in at LAFC
Gareth Bale has insisted he could play on until beyond the next European Championships in 2024 and intends to carry on his trophy-winning habit in MLS

Ed Aarons in Los Angeles

11, Jul, 2022 @10:21 PM

Article image
Not feeling the (Dallas) Burn: why MLS teams tried to sound more European
There was a time when US soccer was a storm of Rowdies and Cosmos, but now United is the name of choice. What’s going on?

Tim Froh

21, Jul, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Manufactured rivalries don’t work: LA’s El Tráfico is an exception
The two Los Angeles teams meet on Thursday night in the MLS playoffs. And the passion and excitement around the game is a highlight of the league

Graham Ruthven

20, Oct, 2022 @8:00 AM