Can Gareth Bale lead LAFC to the MLS Cup?
The odds on LAFC winning the MLS Cup shortened after the club completed a blockbuster deal to sign Gareth Bale this week. The Welsh forward is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of his generation, and he won the Champions League five times at Real Madrid. His contract expired this summer, and he chose the bright lights of Los Angeles over a return to the Premier League. Can Bale lead his new team to glory?
Bale’s Arrival Sparks Excitement
It is worth noting that LAFC was the favorite to win the Cup this year before news broke of Bale’s move. After all, the Black and Gold are top of the Western Conference standings, with the best record in the league. They have won 12 of their 19 games so far this year, firing in 38 goals in the process.
However, the arrival of Bale is a big deal, and the odds have plunged to reflect his arrival. The best price available on LAFC winning the MLS Cup is now just +350 with BetRivers, while the likes of BetMGM will only go to +275 on it seizing glory. If Bale is operating anywhere close to the peak of his powers, he will blaze a trail of destruction across the league, but we do not yet know what sort of shape he will be in.
Gareth Bale: A Potted History
Bale began his career at Southampton back in 2006. He made his debut at the age of 16, and he put in a string of impressive performances for the Saints that season. Tottenham snapped him up for an initial fee of £5m ($6m) in the summer of 2007. Bale’s first couple of seasons at Spurs were riddled with injury problems.
He was initially a left-back, and he struggled to break into the first-team due to the form of Benoit Assou-Ekotto. However, the Cameroonian defender was injured in January 2010, giving Bale a chance to make his mark. He grasped it with both hands. Bale helped Tottenham qualify for the Champions League that season, and he was rewarded with a new four-year contract. When Assou-Ekotto eventually returned from injury, manager Harry Redknapp moved Bale into a more advanced role as a left-winger to allow both men to play in the same team. It was a decision that would prove pivotal.
Bale relished the opportunity to play higher up the pitch, and he began terrorizing opposing defenses in the Premier League and Champions League. A highlight came in October 2010, when he fired in a hat-trick against Inter Milan. His sparkling form continued, and he became the first name on Tottenham’s team sheet. At the end of the 2012-13 season, he was named PFA Player of the Year and FWA Player of the Year after scoring 21 goals in 33 games. That cemented his status as the best player in the Premier League.
Real Madrid made Bale the most expensive soccer player of all time when they signed him for €100 million in 2013. He repaid that transfer fee with several crucial goals, including a superb solo effort in the 2014 Copa del Rey final and an overhead kick in the 2018 Champions League final. Bale played alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in a fearsome attacking triumvirate, and Los Blancos won a series of major trophies.
Things started to turn sour for Bale in 2019 after he fell out with manager Zinedine Zidane. He was all set to move to Jiangsu Suning in China, but Real Madrid pulled the plug on the move at the last minute. Later that year, he posed for a picture holding a flag that read: “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.” That sparked fury from Real Madrid fans, but Bale ended up making 16 appearances as the club won La Liga. He spent the 2020-21 campaign on loan at former club Tottenham, and then he returned to Madrid for his final season.
The Current Situation with Bale
Bale made just five league appearances for Real Madrid last season and scored one goal. His relationship with the fans and the Spanish media deteriorated even further over the course of the campaign. Marca, the leading Madrid newspaper, branded Bale a “parasite” after he missed a match against Barcelona but then declared himself fit enough to play for Wales. He hit back at “slanderous, derogatory and speculative journalism” and said Marca is the “real parasite.”
Real won La Liga and the Champions League in May, but Bale barely featured during the second half of the campaign. He is now 32 years of age, and LAFC fans may be concerned that he is now well past his peak. Yet Bale’s performances for Wales this year provide cause for optimism. He scored the only goal of the game as the Welsh team beat Ukraine to secure World Cup qualification, and he also put Austria to the sword with two sumptuous strikes back in March.
When asked about Bale’s arrival, LAFC captain Carlos Vela was keen to point out that the Welsh forward cannot expect to take it easy in Major League Soccer. “If he comes in with a good mentality, with a good attitude, he will be really important because he’s a big player,” said Vela. “He’s coming from Real Madrid, so I think I don’t have to talk much about him because everybody knows how good he is. The only thing I can say is he will have to come to work because it’s not that easy, like how the people think.”
Bale insists he wants to enjoy a long, trophy-laden career in LA. “I still have many years to come,” said Bale at his introductory press conference this month. "I haven't come here just to be here for six months, 12 months. I've come here to try and be here as long as possible. It also gives me the best opportunity to keep going to the next Euros [in 2024], maybe further. My plan is to really work hard. It’s a great physical team [at LAFC], medical staff, performance staff at the training ground. We’ve got a great plan going forward to get me up to speed and hopefully last as long as possible.”
Black and Gold fans will not witness the Bale that tore Premier League defenses to shreds in 2013 or the Bale that set La Liga alight between 2014 and 2018, but he could have a far greater impact than some of the other European players that have ended their careers in the United States. He still boasts great acceleration, he is a lethal finisher and his prowess from free-kicks is tremendous, so he could be a game-changer for LAFC in the playoffs.
Giorgio Chiellini Bolsters the Defense
Speaking of aging stars heading to Major League Soccer for one last hurrah, LAFC have also signed one of the greatest defenders of all time. Giorgio Chiellini has arrived from Juventus, and he was on the bench for the 3-2 win against LA Galaxy at the weekend. The battle-hardened veteran is now 37 years of age, and his better days are firmly behind him, but he will bring a great deal of experience to the locker room.
Chiellini won nine Serie A titles with the Bianconeri. He also captained Italy to victory at last summer’s European Championship. The center-back could no longer deal with the rigors of Italian soccer, but he could make the Black and Gold a lot more solid in big games. He is no longer the sort of player that can handle a busy schedule, but he could be an invaluable asset in important playoff clashes.
LAFC’s Chances of Success
LAFC only began playing in 2018, but they have already won the Western Conference and the Supporters’ Shield. They also finished runners-up at the CONCACAF Champions League in 2020.
They are yet to win the MLS Cup, but they now look poised for success. The team was already very strong, and the arrivals of Bale and Chiellini will bolster the attack and the defense.
The midfield is already solid, with José Cifuentes and Kellyn Acosta providing steel and guile. Cristian Arango is a dangerous striker, and Vela has scored 63 goals in 103 games for the Black and Gold. They also have the best defensive record in the Western Conference this season, so there are no holes in Steve Cherundolo’s team right now.
Their best performances have come at the Banc of California Stadium. They have picked up eight wins, two draws and just one defeat from 11 home games so far this year. LAFC should gain home advantage for the playoffs, as Cherundolo’s men appear to be a lock for the Supporters’ Shield right now. That could ultimately prove crucial, as the Banc of California Stadium is a fortress. Throw in the experience of Chiellini and the goals of Bale, and you have a perfect recipe for success, so it is hard to bet against LAFC winning the Cup in 2022.