AL-RAYYAN, Qatar – Head coach Gregg Berhalter and his US men’s national team staff are generally known for extensive scouting of opponents.
That said, anyone on the USMNT seeking additional notes on Gareth Bale ahead of their World Cup Group B curtain-raiser vs. Wales (Monday | 2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo) just needed to check in with his LAFC teammate, Kellyn Acosta, to get a firsthand rundown of how dangerous the iconic winger can be.
“I think I have an advantage in that respect,” Acosta told reporters earlier this week. “I’ve obviously kind of shared with the guys here. But I think everyone knows Gareth from just watching him play over the years. He’s a guy that, you let him be comfortable, he can really hurt you.
“Obviously he had some injury woes that kind of kept him sidelined, but he’s a quality player. You saw even with his limited time [at LAFC] he scored a bunch of goals, and important goals, for us. And in training, I see a guy that works hard, that’s eager, that’s hungry, and I know come the game on Monday, he’s going to be ready. Definitely just seeing how he moves around and sees the game, he’s still Gareth Bale.”
Kicking or banter?
Now 33, the former Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur man remains the unquestioned superstar and role model in the Wales camp. Acosta got a dose of that mystique after Bale moved from Spain to Los Angeles in a head-turning summer signing – without a transfer fee or Designated Player spot necessary – that eventually helped seal LAFC’s MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield double.
“He does have that glow,” said Acosta of the five-time UEFA Champions League winner, “because when you admire someone you kind of see them in a different light … just the way that he carries himself, I think of guys that come to the field with a lot of responsibility. In the gym he’s the first one in, one of the last guys out, he really takes care of himself. It’s the little details that go a long way. That’s why he’s had such a long career and a good career.”
Acosta made headlines around the world for saying the USMNT would need to be physical with Bale, to “start kicking him around the field and make him feel us and limit his time and space,” drawing a response from the Welshman in the Dragons’ matchday-1 press conference on Sunday.
“I tried to avoid him kicking me the last two weeks before we came!” said Bale, who also declared he’s “right where I want to be” and “ready to go” in fitness terms after injuries limited him to just two starts (13 appearances) in MLS action.
“So no, it's nothing. I’m used to getting kicked on the field. So yeah, nothing changed, as far as the referees there. Yeah, I'm sure it'll be a fair but difficult game tomorrow that both teams are looking forward to, and I'm sure it’ll be played in a great spirit.”
Even with his tongue in cheek, Acosta acknowledged such tactics are easier said than done with a pacey, free-roaming attacker like Bale, especially in the taut environment of the World Cup, where one mistimed tackle can wreck a team’s hopes in an instant.
“Don’t let him get to his left foot! Simple as that, right?” said Acosta, who like Bale scored for LAFC in their epic MLS Cup 2022 final win over the Philadelphia Union earlier this month.
“Special players make special plays, and he’s a guy who you definitely have to worry about because once he gets into the game and finds space and becomes comfortable and confident, he’s very dangerous. And he’s going to be a catalyst for them, so he’s a guy that we definitely have to have eyes on.”
As much as the USMNT and their supporters have counted the days to this match in the wake of the Russia 2018 qualifying fiasco, Wales have waited even longer for this moment: The Dragons’ last and only other World Cup campaign was way back in Sweden 1958, a 64-year drought. That can only add further intensity to Monday’s clash at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
“Representing your country, [that’s] something that’s bigger than yourself. I know that he’s super keen and excited to be part of it,” said Acosta of Bale.
“As far as banter goes, we talk each and every day about it [at LAFC]. He always gives little jokes, I give it back, back and forth. It’s a good time. He’s a great dude and he’s someone that I’ve admired for a long time. So to share the field with him is pretty special.”
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