The news of Bale signing for LAFC took the world by storm when the announcement was made public back in June, and I was impressed that LAFC were able to pull off such a massive signing. This was a player who once was part of a front line that featured five-time Ballon D’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and most recent Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema, who collectively scored more than 200 goals together for Real Madrid.
He now has just three games to win an MLS Cup and then look forward to his first-ever World Cup with Wales.
It’s no secret Bale has had a slower-than-hoped-for introduction to the league. He has only managed to start in two matches out of the 12 he has featured in since signing with the club. And while Bale’s appearances in MLS have been somewhat underwhelming, given his pedigree, he has shown flashes of the brilliance he possesses.
LAFC’s record with Bale on the pitch is 7W-4L-1D. So, with the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs kicking off Thursday night for LAFC, how will the club use the attacking superstar?
Bring on the super sub
This is a league that is difficult for any player to join midseason and perform, as is the case for many leagues around the world. Because of the travel, difference in pitches, in climates and its raw athleticism, adjusting quickly is not easy.
In the past, there have been a few star players who have had shortcomings, where they were lucky to showcase brief snippets of their true star quality. But, for the most part, the big-time attacking players that have come to MLS have produced. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (22 goals in 24 starts), Didier Drogba (11 goals in nine starts) and David Villa (18 goals in 29 starts) did not need any time to acclimate during their first campaigns. In Thierry Henry’s first season, however, the striker only managed to bag two goals in 11 starts during the 2010 campaign. He went on to be one of the greatest attacking players in league history, racking up 51 goals and 42 assists.
The LAFC coaching staff knew it was going to be a process for Bale. That process has been quite slow due to small fitness setbacks – back tightness has forced LAFC to hit the pause button. The 33-year-old was out for most of 2022 with calf and knee injuries and then back trouble saw him play in just two matches for Real Madrid, amounting to only 90 minutes. His fitness has been the main reason for his lack of playing time over the past two years in Europe. Given that history, I would tread carefully and that is exactly what LAFC have done.
I see Bale being used as an option off the bench in these playoffs, as a super sub. There is no need to rush him back to full health when the team has other dangerous options up top, especially since his return from international duty, where he seemed to be dealing with another fitness hiccup.
In my eyes, the ideal position for Bale on this team would be at the center forward position that is currently occupied by Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalist Cristian Arango. Bale has preferred a more central role recently, similar to how he lines up for Wales as a No. 9. LAFC are lucky there is no urgency to play Bale because Arango has been in sensational form this season.
Sometimes the integration of a quality player like Bale can motivate others in the team, especially ones who play the same position. I believe the arrival of the former Real Madrid attacker has motivated Arango to play consistently at a high level and his work rate has improved as a result. And in my opinion, Arango has enough quality to lead the line to the club’s first-ever MLS Cup title.
A cautious approach
The conversations around Bale and his influence on the club have been all positive. Head coach Steve Cherundolo said, "He is here for the right reasons."
“He's a fantastic human being, very easy to talk to and a pleasure to be around,” he added. “Gareth and I talk on a daily basis and it's come easy in that regard.”
In the recruitment process, communication and transparency are extremely critical to ensure a chance at a successful relationship. The club was aware of Bale’s injury history and his desire to play a significant role for Wales in the World Cup.
Bale was interested in finding an opportunity where he could stay healthy, fit and sharp ahead of Qatar, but also wanted to be in a situation where he could find the joy of playing again for a special club. Cherundolo has been cautious in his approach with the superstar, both in terms of playing time and integration. I think he's doing it with precision and with an eye on short-term MLS Cup glory and long-term success.
“If you take all the other factors out of the equation, he's a player who's signed a contract with LAFC. And he has a history, a medical history, an injury history, a fitness level prior to his arrival. Then we take him through what we think with our performance staff and our medical staff of what is the right way to load him and to prepare him for affecting our results in a positive manner, but also post-season for the World Cup. That's genuinely pretty much it,” Cherundolo explained. “It's not rocket science, it's just sitting down with the player, communicating and going through the numbers.”
There is no doubt a signing of Bale’s caliber can lift the group as a whole and have an enormous impact. The experience and excitement that come with acquiring a top talent can be massive for the team. Yes, Bale has been underwhelming so far, but I understand why as the build-up with his fitness hasn’t been the smoothest. That being said, he can be the game-changing substitute for LAFC against the Galaxy and beyond. That’s what I expect from him, given he stays healthy. And that’s fine.
The league has come a long way. In the past, the idea of a global superstar coming off the bench in a playoff series would be looked at as unfathomable. But looking at the bigger picture, LAFC have the luxury of depth to ensure their best chance of winning a title.