Thousands of words and many minutes of video content have been composed about the mad scramble to swap jerseys with Lionel Messi after his Inter Miami CF matches, a notable signpost of the high regard with which the Argentine legend is held by players around MLS and beyond.

If that’s a key metric for colleagues’ admiration, it should be noted, then, that postgame demand for Giorgio Chiellini’s No. 14 LAFC shirt is similarly intense since his arrival in the league last summer.

“I never finish a game with my jersey,” the Italian legend admitted with a grin to MLSsoccer.com this week. “I have every time exchanged my jersey and it's something that I am really happy to do.

“I have a huge legacy with the team, but I feel I have also a huge legacy with MLS, with the league,” he added. “I’m really enjoying trying to show that also to my opponents, to every team that I face, because a lot of them told me at the end of the game and just said, ‘I'm seeing how much you enjoy, I'm happy for you and I'm happy you are playing here.’ That type of thing, I think for me it was more important than just the performance.”

Trophies, of course, are the ultimate metric and Chiellini’s time in North America has already reaped a 2022 Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double, with his club still on course to defend the latter title as they host Houston Dynamo FC in Saturday’s Western Conference Final at BMO Stadium (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). Even at the ripe old age of 39, the cerebral center back remains vital to the Black & Gold’s hopes, perhaps even more so than in his first season.

LAFC’s usual swashbuckling attacking mindset has evolved into something much more pragmatic this year, particularly in the pressurized environment of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. This was epitomized by last weekend’s 1-0 Conference Semifinal road win over Seattle Sounders FC, anchored by a Chiellini defensive masterclass: Impeccable positioning and a tidy stat line of nine total clearances, three interceptions, one recovery, 2/3 duels won, two fouls drawn and just one committed as the Angelinos protected Dénis Bouanga’s first-half goal.

"His timing and his intelligence to anticipate, to read moments in the game, when to step, anticipate crosses, getting early body position on forwards, is amazing,” head coach Steve Cherundolo said of Chiellini afterwards. “When he gets into an open field and he’s having to run with forwards, of course, it's not the greatest. But his timing and his anticipation and his football IQ is something that this league, I don't think, has ever seen in that position.

“We're very blessed to have him and to see him, at this stage in his career, putting everything he possibly has in it for this group and this team, is special.”

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Adapting his game

Chiellini looked his age on one broken play in the early stages in Seattle that conceded a breakaway to Jordan Morris. Yet after goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau denied the Sounders attacker with an excellent one-v-one save, LAFC locked things down in impressive fashion, orchestrated by their veteran Italian’s instincts and communication alongside his more athletic central partner Jesús Murillo.

“For Jordan Morris, that type of situation, I cannot do anything, to be honest,” said Chiellini, who became the fifth-oldest goalscorer in league history when he found the net vs. Portland in March. “It happened that we were surprised, we did a mistake, me and Muri together. But all the rest of the game, I never concede that to him. That is one of the fastest [players in the league], and if he was a little bit more sharp in the first minutes – that was really the beginning, maybe we're a little bit more contracted because of the pressure of the game.

“Yeah, we started together,” he added with another smile, readily acknowledging he had “no possibility” of catching the US international. “It’s better to do on my own pace and not try to go over because I risk injury.”

As they move into their 30s, almost every player faces the tricky equation of balancing an increasingly sophisticated reading of the game with the human body’s inevitable physical decline. Chiellini’s ability to weaponize his intellect to compensate for fading legs is particularly striking. He points to the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his right knee four years ago as a watershed moment.

“My biggest change was the ACL that I had in 2019, when I was 35. Because after the ACL, I really lost a lot of physicality, especially the long runs,” he said. “I was still good in the small space and using my body, good reactions, first steps. When I had to open the legs and run, after the ACL I had many problems, because I had some problems [with] hamstring and calf close to the knee that needed surgery, and I never reached any more the same type of speed, and the frequency and the velocity in which I arrived to that type of speed that I had before. … An ACL at 25 is not the same as this type of injury at 35.”

That adversity, however, turned out to be the prelude for arguably his greatest achievement: Captaining Italy to a 2020 European championship just a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday.

“I had just started before using more my brain, but to be honest, before the injury, my physicality, my pace, everything was over the average and still so good,” he recalled. “After that, yeah, I completely changed my way of play. I cannot risk any more to press high when I'm not sure to be covered, or to have the protection of some of my players in behind. It wasn't easy, but it was a challenge that I liked to have. Yeah, and I did fantastic here also after the ACL. The best was for sure the Euros, the months that I really played high, high level. Probably I'd played better before, but not in games so important.”

Chiellini Messi

Nowadays he keenly feels the effects of week-to-week mileage, especially after games on artificial turf like in Vancouver and Seattle. Cherundolo and his staff managed Chiellini’s minutes carefully over LAFC’s marathon 2023 to ensure he’d be available for their most consequential matches.

While the Livorno product is not yet ready to make, or at least make public, his decision about next season – he’s out of contract at year’s end – it’s not hard to see him remaining an impactful contributor should he decide to run it back one more time.

“I have to talk with family, club and decide. I don't want to take a decision now, because I'm too focused on playoffs,” he said. “I think that when everything will be finished and we are more relaxed, we will take the best decision.”

MLS sponge

It’s helped immensely that Chiellini has dived headlong into MLS, immersing himself in the league via seemingly compulsive watching of matches around the league – at least that’s how it appears, based on his deep knowledge of the other 28 teams from practically the moment he signed – and embracing a very different setting from Juventus, where he made more than 500 appearances over two profoundly successful decades.

The Round One Best-of-3 format that sparked so much contentious debate among pundits and fans? Chiellini is a fan.

“I like a lot the Best-of-3 games,” he said. “I think it's fair for the team that arrive in higher seeds. And it's good also for the others because that's the possibility to play at home. Everyone that joined the playoffs has the possibility to play one game at home to also celebrate and give a reward for the team and their fans. I like it a lot. I know it's very difficult to ask for all the rounds, because maybe too many games, but I liked it a lot this type of thing the first time I did it.”

Ask him to share his observations of MLS’s tactical and stylistic landscape, and he offers an extensive breakdown, in English, that suggests he could easily pen one of the weighty theses many of his former Italy teammates like Andrea Pirlo have produced as they advance through their coaching education curricula.

“It depends on the team, because here we have very different styles and way of playing, the kind of coaches, club, type of player,” said Chiellini. “I am thinking about Philly as one – we fight against them for a year many times, and they are a hard-working team, very vertical, not taking care of possession, ball, tiki-taka style. But they are very direct and they're doing a fantastic effort together, and it works. It works, because they didn't win [MLS Cup], but they arrived close to the end a lot of times. Yeah, they lost the last game [to Cincinnati] in the last minute on a controversial goal, but they are also this year close ‘til the end.

“Then you play against Vanni [Sartini]’s team [Vancouver] or Dallas or also Houston that are more with the ball, that try to play much more, sometimes over-build. It's not easy to find just one style of play.”

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Tactical mind

With so much salary spending invested in attackers and such a broad palette of game models and personalities, MLS games tend to be open, breakneck affairs and less methodical than the traditional norm in Serie A. But Chiellini notes how much cagier it’s gotten in the postseason, where mistakes are scarcer and more severely punished.

“Also I think that, as in every sport in US, games in the regular season are very different from games in the playoffs. It’s something that I had heard about, I am an NBA fan and I heard many times about NBA that the games are very different, and it's happening also for us,” he said. “Games are very different because now when you arrive close to the end, every team is more focused. You cannot be lazy or try to cheat, because you don't want to run for 30 meters, like happens sometimes in regular season, unfortunately.

“You really find single game, knockout game is very different. Much more attention, less risk, and we are seeing in these playoffs how much the games [had] every time a lot of balance.”

Perhaps that’s a factor in why he and LAFC have thrived there. After a few goalfests in the early stages, scoring has grown scarcer as this year’s playoffs advance, with three 1-0s and a 2-0 last weekend underlining the high stakes and tight margins. Chiellini expects much the same when Héctor Herrera’s Dynamo – who beat the Black & Gold in both of their league matches this year – bring their slick-passing midfield to Exposition Park on Saturday.

“As I said before Seattle, it would be decided by details,” he said. “If you are able to defend well, try not to concede them a lot of combinations – they love to do it close to our [penalty] box in order to create danger. If we are able put Bouanga, [Cristian] Olivera in their right movement, try to go in the space and do one against one without cover, or try to find Carlos [Vela] in between the lines in order to have a good pass, I think that we could have the best chance.

“If we are not balanced and we concede transitions to them, or too easy possession of the ball, we risk to lose, and that can happen very, very easily. If you're playing an average game, I think we don't win. In order to win, we have to play a more-than-average game.”

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SoCal life

Whether this is his last dance or not, Los Angeles and its people have worked their way into Chiellini’s heart for the longer term. With his wife Carolina and their young daughters Nina and Olivia also settled into life in Southern California after a steep initial learning curve, this American adventure has lived up to his vision and then some.

“Yeah, better and better,” said Chiellini. “I had a dream and hope about how beautiful could be this experience, not just on the field – because to be honest, I like MLS and I like to watch how is growing up the soccer, from years ago to now.

“With family, with the city, with this meeting with different cultures, the diversity that Los Angeles has is pretty hard to find all over the world. And I'm happier and happier months by months. Also the family, it’s much easier this year compared to last year when we arrived here, the girls – I have two daughters, they didn’t speak English, now they start to have friends, have a lot of things to do. They speak the language and it's easier to connect and have friendship with people. It's much better. I'm very lucky to be chosen for LAFC, very lucky to be here. I would say I’m still enjoying a lot.”

He’ll return to Italy this winter to reconnect with loved ones and do some television analysis work, and the family’s tentative plan is to go home to Turin when he finally does call time on his glittering playing career. Yet he jokes that Nina, 8, “has a Californian accent. She’s really a Cali girl now,” and is leaving the door open for an ongoing relationship with the “second home” they’ve made in the United States.

“I'm not closed to the opportunity maybe in the future to come back another time. It's a part of the world that also, if I decide to go back to Italy, that I want to maintain open, because the life is long, there is opportunity and another life that is waiting for me that could change frequently. Soccer here is increasing year by year,” he said.

“I’m really not just playing and being with my family in the city, but I'm really, I don't know how I would say in English, but I, yeah, I'm making really something – a friendship and something strong here.”

Chiellini clap hands