LOS ANGELES – It had to be him.
With the second extra-time period nearing its conclusion in Saturday’s MLS Cup 2022 matchup, the visiting Philadelphia Union seemed set for a 3-2 win at Banc of California Stadium.
Gareth Bale had other ideas.
LAFC’s superstar forward, signed in late June upon leaving Real Madrid, leaped skyward to connect with Diego Palacios’ endline cross, heading it home in the 128th minute to force a 3-3 draw and penalty kicks.
It was a Hollywood moment from the league’s biggest star and set the stage for the Black & Gold’s first-ever league title after a 3-0 penalty-kick shootout victory. In one nod of the ball, vindication was found.
Bale wasn’t kidding, by the way. The 33-year-old arrived in Southern California after winning 19 trophies since 2013, spanning his time with Tottenham and Real Madrid. He even once commanded the world’s biggest-ever transfer fee, moving from the English Premier League to Spain’s LaLiga.
But, truthfully, Bale’s time in MLS hasn’t gone how some hoped. He only produced two goals across roughly 350 minutes (12 appearances) during the regular season as LAFC became Supporters’ Shield champions, and then he didn’t feature in their Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs run until facing Philadelphia.
Introduced in the 97th minute for club captain Carlos Vela, Bale made the difference when it mattered most – pushing back against some criticisms that follow a player of his global profile.
“He's a guy with big qualities and a guy who makes big plays,” said head coach Steve Cherundolo. “Let's hope he doesn't in the first game of the World Cup for all the Americans in the room.
“But it's Gareth being Gareth. He does it in training. He's done it this season. When he's feeling well and healthy, he makes a difference in games. That's why we bring him in in those moments. I wish he was 24.”
Giorgio Chiellini, LAFC’s other high-profile addition this summer, summed up the emotional impact of Bale’s heroics.
“Before Gareth scored, I was thinking it was over,” said the former Juventus center back. “Then when I see the goal, I thought it’s fair, it’s destiny that the Cup is close to LAFC.”
Close indeed, and now Bale will turn his focus to leading Wales into their first World Cup in 64 years. They’ll open Nov. 21 against the United States, likely squaring off against his LAFC teammate Kellyn Acosta, whose deflected free kick opened the scoring in Saturday’s barnburner.
Bale addressed the injury concerns that seem to frame global soccer nowadays, with Qatar 2022 hopes creeping into players’ minds.
“It's been difficult mentally now leading into the World Cup,” Bale said. “You see there's so many players that are dropping out, and now they are missing the World Cup.
“So it's been difficult mentally, and I'm sure it has been for a lot of players leading, going into the World Cup. For sure it's been in the back of my mind trying to make sure I'm 100 percent fit.”
Bale, who joined LAFC on a 12-month contract using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) with options through 2024, said he’s still not at full fitness. But the joy of bringing a historic MLS Cup to his new club might help ease some lingering pains.
“It's important for this club to go to the next level, and I think by winning this trophy, it shows that we are. It's a club really on the rise doing the right things,” Bale said. “It’s an important trophy for us, especially the first one, first major trophy, and hopefully there's more to come in the future.”