MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Will LAFC miss Gareth Bale? Here are their options in attack


The Gareth Bale era at LAFC will always be remembered fondly because of one goal, one header, one moment deep into extra-time of MLS Cup 2022.

Bale, at age 33, announced his retirement from soccer on Monday, with his second-to-last touch in professional club soccer being the latest goal in MLS history. (He headed away a corner a minute later before the penalty shootout).

Bale is a legend in this game, with a list of individual and team accolades that could fill a college term paper. For more on his stellar career, and all of those accolades, check here. This piece is about what happens next with LAFC.

I say all of those (earned) kind words to soften the blow for this: Bale retiring is almost* the best-case scenario for LAFC. It will not be difficult to replace a player who played 347 regular-season minutes and 23 postseason minutes.

*The absolute best-case scenario for LAFC would have been Bale shaking his injuries and having another two seasons in him as a goal-scoring machine.

Bale’s contract ran through June 2023, taking up significant room on the salary cap. The club option to extend his deal would have made him a Designated Player. With Bale stepping away from the game as a champion and hero for Wales, leading his country to the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 64 years, LAFC have clarity on a crucial roster mechanism.

The answer to replace Bale can already be found within the roster, which we’ll get to in a second. But now with Bale off the books, the salary cap just opened up and there’s full clarity on their final DP spot. The club can add a DP with immediate effect this winter alongside Carlos Vela and Dénis Bouanga, all without worrying about the roster headache in the summer.

As for internal? LAFC are well set, with a presumed front three of Vela, Chicho Arango and Bouanga.

Let’s start there.

Starting group

A front line of Vela-Arango-Bounga is among the best in MLS. In addition to individual talent, their skill sets complement each other well.

  • Arango is the pure finishing No. 9
  • Bouanga is a skillful winger who loves to make dynamic, vertical runs
  • Vela being, well, Vela. Playmaker, goal scorer and star

The fit with Vela and Bale was always awkward given their preference for cutting in from the right wing and not exactly covering a ton of ground at this stage of their careers. Now that won’t be a worry for head coach Steve Cherundolo.

Cherundolo’s worry will, again, be keeping a deep squad happy and spreading minutes around, something he did well during his first season as head coach in 2022.

Attacking depth

With that trio as the attacking foundation, LAFC have plenty to choose from. Even without Bale.

LAFC post-Bale depth chart

Mahala Opoku

Ghanian attacker Mahala Opoku experienced a breakout 2022 season, posting seven goals and three assists across 1,770 minutes. He appeared in all 34 regular-season matches, underpinning his importance to the group, and started 20 games, despite all of LAFC’s more established attacking talent.

Opoku, 21, kept Brian Rodriguez on the bench before the club transferred the Uruguayan international to Liga MX's Club América. He then helped keep Bale out of the team in the summer.

Like Bouanga, Opoku fits well opposite Vela because of his verticality and work rate. He can play through the center as well.

Stipe Biuk

LAFC surprised neutrals when signing Croatian youth international Stipe Biuk from Hadjuk Split, bringing one of the European country’s brightest talents to MLS.

Biuk was signed for a transfer fee in the region of $5.5 million, a significant outlay, but a bit less than anticipated when Biuk was being linked with some of Europe’s biggest teams.

LAFC will have a plan to integrate the 20-year-old winger into the team and give him plenty of chances to develop. He occupies a U22 Initiative spot.

Biuk was named to the 40-man shortlist for UEFA’s Golden Boy award in 2022. He already made 66 first-team appearances for Split, a club well respected for its youth development.

Cristian Tello?

The question mark there signifies Tello is still not under contract for 2023, but the last update I got was talks were still active about a potential return. TBD!

Tello, 31, signed with LAFC late in the season and ended up playing 94 regular-season minutes. The winger made his debut in September after being signed as a free agent.

He has played in nearly 200 LaLiga games since coming through the Barcelona and Espanyol academies, plus has featured on loan at Italy’s Fiorentina and Portugal’s Porto. Internationally, Tello earned one cap for Spain in 2013 and featured at the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

When are LAFC back?

LAFC, fresh off becoming the eighth MLS club to win an MLS Cup-Supporters’ Shield double, open their season on Feb. 25 against archrivals LA Galaxy at the Rose Bowl (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

The Black & Gold are also in the 2023 Concacaf Champions League and drew Costa Rica’s Alajuelense in the Round of 16. They’ll play the first leg away on March 9 before returning to Banc of California Stadium for the second leg on March 15.