Gareth Bale’s MLS experiment hasn’t been a huge success but with a clutch goal in the cup final, silverware and insider knowledge of US soccer, it’s done the job of preparing him for the World Cup and a ‘last dance’ with his beloved Wales
- Gareth Bale joined Los Angeles FC in the summer after leaving Real Madrid
- The winger needed to find a club to maintain his fitness ahead of the World Cup
- The Welshman made just two starts during the regular MLS season for LAFC
- But Bale saved the best till last with a crucial equalizer in the MLS Cup final
- He may not have hugely succeed in LA, but his stint has him prepared for Qatar
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At the end of last season Bale’s nine-year association with Real Madrid came to an end and the future of his entire career hinged on one thing – Wales’s qualification for the World Cup.
Once Wales had booked its place in Qatar, any talk of retirement for Bale was swiftly put on hold.
Bowing out at Real Madrid after winning the Champions League for a fifth time would have been a fairytale ending to a trophy-laden but conflicted career.
But any decision on his future was put on the backburner while he helped Wales qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 64 years and as the emotional celebration wound down to a close, he had to plot his next move very carefully.
His and his agent’s focus turned to looking for a new club to maintain his fitness ahead of the World Cup. A number of options were floated, including Spanish team Getafe, closer to home at Cardiff City, and his schoolboy club Southampton.
Instead, he opted to become one of the latest heavyweights to make the move from Europe to the States, joining Juventus and Italy legend Giorgio Chiellini at Los Angeles FC.
Gareth Bale (center) led Wales to World Cup qualification for the first time in 64 years
The Wales captain joined MLS team Los Angeles FC in summer after leaving Real Madrid
The winger ended his nine-year spell at the Bernabeau by winning his fifth Champions League
But his MLS career wasn’t entirely the dream warm up to the World Cup Bale – and Welsh fans – were hoping for.
He started life in Los Angeles well, scoring twice in his first four games but it went downhill from there.
He played 346 minutes in 12 appearances but only made two starts and found the back of the net just twice during the regular season.
LAFC posted a minus five goal differential when he wasn’t on the field. In those same games, they outscored opponents by 11 goals when he was not on the field.
Furthermore, same injury issues that blighted him during his time at the Bernabeu have followed him across the pond with a leg injury ruling him out of the MLS playoffs quarter-finals – dangerously close to Qatar.
However, his MLS experiment wasn’t entirely in vain either as he seemingly saved the best till last.
In a raucous MLS Cup final, Bale piped up with a dramatic 129th minute equalizer.
It looked like Jack Elliott, Philadelphia’s London-born defender, had won the game with an unlikely double but the Wales captain stepped up to bring the game level again and take it to a deciding penalty shoot-out which was won by LAFC’s substitute goalkeeper John McCarthy.
It provided a glimpse of peak Bale. He always seems to pop up in the right place at the right time to deliver clutch goals on some of soccer’s biggest stages. ‘That’ goal against Barcelona late into the Copa del Rey final in 2014 or the spectacular bicycle kick to break the 1-1 deadlock against Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2018, to name a couple.
He himself admitted he seems to have a ‘knack’ for scoring big goals in finals following the MLS Cup victory.
Bale scored a massive equalizer in the 129th minute of extra time against Philadelphia Union
Union goalkeeper Andre Blake couldn’t keep out Bale’s header that sent the game to penalties
LAFC won the game on penalties and Bale (right) was regarded as a hero for his contribution
The golden moment in the MLS Cup final was also a stark reminder of the Bale that shows up for Wales.
Throughout his woes with Real Madrid over the past few seasons, he still seemed to find form on international duty – a point of much contempt for Los Blancos fans.
Bale has become notorious for putting his country – and golf – above his club. He famously antagonized Real Madrid in 2019 when he and his Wales team-mates held up a flag that read ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.’
The controversial stunt took place after Wales beat Hungary to qualify for Euro 2020, and came amid wild celebrations with the crowd in Cardiff.
At the time, Bale was heavily linked with a move away from the Bernabeu, and was caught on camera laughing, which didn’t go down too well with the fans in Madrid.
The tension between the Welshman and Madrid boiled over November 2021 as Bale was slammed for playing for his country by the Spanish media.
Madrid supporters were enraged after Bale’s notorious, and controversial, flag stunt in 2019
The winger hadn’t featured for Real Madrid since August 28, in their clash against Real Betis, after picking up a hamstring tear in September.
But he won his 100th cap for Wales when managed a first-half cameo for Rob Page’s side against Belarus last November. Bale lined up from the off in the World Cup qualifier but was substituted off at half-time.
He was forced to reveal post-match following Wales’ victory that his substitution was pre-planned, but his attitude has since been scathingly labelled as ‘unpresentable’ by frustrated reporters back in Spain.
After scoring Wales’s two goals against Austria in a World Cup qualifier in March, the Spanish media once again hit out at Bale, branding him a ‘parasite’.
The negative media attention even appeared to have followed him across the Atlantic early in his MLS career when his first start for LAFC turned into a nightmare.
LAFC were thrashed by Austin FC 4-1 and Bale was accused of being ‘way off the pace’ and ‘not caring’ by pundits before being subbed off after 60 minutes.
However, despite whatever criticism the press have fired at him over the years for it, Bale has consistently been a key component of the Wales team.
He has made 108 appearances for Wales, is his country’s record scorer with 39 goals and led the team to the semifinal of Euro 2016, where they lost 2-0 to eventual champions Portugal.
The 33-year-old has consistently been a key component of the Wales national team
He has made 108 appearances for Wales, is his country’s record scorer with 39 goals
He is also a valuable asset in the dressing room in terms of team morale.
He is the joker who rearranged sprinklers during Euro 2020 to soak his teammates during a pre-match warm-up prank.
He arranged a group huddle after missing a penalty against Turkey to take the blame for a potentially costly failure.
And most importantly, he is the down-to-earth star who wants everyone to feel as comfortable as he does when representing the team.
Therefore, coming in as a talisman for the Welsh side off the back of a crucial MLS goal will not only have put a spring in Bale’s step, but the entirety of the Wales camp too.
Any injury concerns seem to have conveniently been put behind him in the nick of time too.
The captain is also a valuable asset in the dressing room in terms of team morale
He arranged a group huddle after missing a penalty against Turkey to take the blame
He insisted he was in full health at a press conference on Monday, when he said: ‘I’m fully fit and ready to go. If I need to play three 90s (minutes), I’ll play three 90s.’
Despite not being in as blistering form as expected in Hollywood, Bale still poses a major concern for the US in Group B.
Ironically, the USMNT view Wales as perhaps their easiest opponents, while the Welsh hold a similar opinion of the US.
But LAFC teammate and US international Kellyn Acosta warned they will have to ‘kick’ Bale to stop him posing a threat.
‘He’s a guy that we know to have eyes on,’ Acosta said, speaking to ESPN. ‘We’ve got to literally start kicking him around the field a little bit. Make him feel us. Limit his time and space.
‘Special players make special plays and he’s a guy you definitely have to be worried about.’
LAFC teammate and US player Kellyn Acosta warned they will have to ‘kick’ Bale to stop him
It’s not just Bale’s presence on the pitch during the MLS season that could benefit but also in the dressing room.
In addition to LAFC teammate Acosta, the USMNT squad has seven members who play for MLS teams.
When asked if Bale has been a scout pre-Qatar looking at players he has played with and against, Wales coach Rob Page said: ‘Yes, absolutely. There’s some American players playing at LAFC.
‘I will definitely speak to him. He will no doubt be picking the ears of some of the internationals at his club too.’
At first glance Bale’s foray into the MLS may not appear to be the greatest success but in reality it’s done the job it was intended to do.
It’s provided him with playing time – albeit not as many as hoped – insider knowledge of the America camp, and a very timely confidence-boosting goal to get him to Qatar for his beloved Wales in what is perhaps his last dance.
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