“It’s too hot in Nashville,” joked Chiellini after his MLS debut in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Nashville SC at GEODIS Park, where stifling humidity kept the heat index in the 90s even after dark, albeit conditions that pale in comparison to what the Black & Gold will experience on several upcoming trips to Texas and other roasty destinations over the next two months or so.
The footballing side of things is much more familiar to the Italian legend. Even in his first competitive appearance since his Juventus swan song in May, he oozed with understated quality as he logged his first 60 minutes for LAFC and helped restore their position at the top of the overall league table.
“I mean, you can imagine after two months, the distance – you can train how many times you want, but the game is something different,” said Chiellini, flashing his trademark disarming grin. “The rate, the distance, the contact, it’s everything different. And surely the first 15 minutes, I continue to say in my mind, ‘quiet, go easily, and then step by step, minute by minute, surely you'll feel better,’ and this is what happened. I have the experience to understand this thing. And for me it's just a preseason, but it's not preseason, because it's very important now, these three points.”
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo had nothing but warm praise for Chiellini and Bale, who came off the bench in the second half to help the visitors salt away the three points after Jose Cifuentes stunned Nashville with the game-winner just seconds into the second half.
“Giorgio, we chose to start and see how long his legs would take him after a very short preseason, and to last for 60 minutes was great. It's great for him, great for the group, very solid performance, much as what we suspected,” said Cherundolo.
“A player of his caliber, he prides himself on not making mistakes, and he can get on the plane tonight and say he played a mistake-free game. He is a world-class defender and he is an amazing human being in the locker room. So we're ecstatic to have him here and it was really important for us to get him and Gareth a win in their first game.”
Chiellini completed 39 of his 45 passes (87%), including one key pass and five accurate long balls, and was his usual composed self in making 11 defensive actions to stave off Nashville’s aggressive but imprecise attack. He also looked like a complementary center-back partner to the younger, more mobile Jesus David Murillo.
“You have Muri, who is an incredible athlete, is quite physical and very fast, and Giorgio, his passing out of the back helped us greatly this evening, his experience and positioning and communication in the backline,” said Cherundolo. “So this was their first game together, and I think for that, it was pretty good.”
Afterwards Chiellini said he’s been watching MLS matches since early in the year as he prepared for the first move abroad of his career, flashing the speed and clarity with which he’s learned about his new league.
“If you see all the teams, the away game[s are] more difficult than the home games. I don't know why, maybe the long travel, maybe the different weather we find. But away, it's always different to win,” said Chiellini. “We have two away games, the next one in Kansas City next week; it's very important for us starting in the right way, and surely now we have to recover, prepare as well as possible for the game for Kansas. And we have to continue to win, because if we want to stay at the top of the league, we have to win away. It’s important.
“It’s a league in which there are so many counterattacks and the teams play open, and it's a little bit different from what I am used to in Italy,” the 37-year-old added. “but I think also I can help my team in order to be more compact, more solid and to control the game in the best way.”
Cherundolo already had his side leading the Supporters’ Shield race before the arrival of their two elite summer reinforcements, giving all parties the luxury of a patient introduction and bedding-in period rather than asking for instant impact.
The coach is now spoiled for choice at both Chiellini’s central defender position and up front, where Bale worked mostly as an inverted right winger in his 18-plus minutes on the pitch – and really, just about every other spot on the pitch, too. He and his famous new signings made it clear that an MLS Cup title is their target and expectation.
“We'd like to think we know what we're doing when we're building rosters, so we don't have to rely on one single player,” said Cherundolo. “Credit to LAFC and the organization; John [Thorrington], Will [Kuntz] and the scouting department. They’ve put together an amazing roster, a very deep one, and it's one we know and we've gotten to know, and we know how to use it to the best of our ability. We said from day one that if we want to be successful this year, everybody's going to need to contribute. And that's what we're focusing on.”