National Writer: Charles Boehm

World Cup spoiler: USMNT say Gareth Bale is "annoying like that"


AL-RAYYAN, Qatar – Anyone who watched the 2022 MLS Cup Final earlier this month saw how Gareth Bale is capable of grabbing the spotlight in high-stakes situations.

Or when he scored in the 2014 UEFA Champions League Final to help Real Madrid win European club soccer’s biggest honor. Or when he did it again in 2018, this time with two goals. Or the time he did the same thing in a Club World Cup Final. Or spearheading Wales’ run to the Euro 2016 semifinals. The list goes on and on.

The US men’s national team did not enjoy getting added to that legend in the suburbs of Doha, Qatar Monday night.

“He's annoying like that,” said Brenden Aaronson after Bale won, then netted the decisive penalty kick past Matt Turner to settle a 1-1 draw and riveting World Cup Group B encounter. “But he's an amazing player. He's done it his whole career.”

Unlike in MLS Cup, Bale started this match. And while he floated around its periphery for long stretches and at times looked winded enough to need a substitution – he started just two of 13 appearances for LAFC after his late-June arrival – he popped up in the late going to flash that world-class quality yet again, albeit not so much with his quick feet and pacey legs as his brain.

US center back Walker Zimmerman, one of the team’s most experienced players, was the victim when Bale slipped in front of him to create the contact that earned the 82nd-minute spot kick that would level the score.

“The ball gets down to the endline, I see it get cut back and that’s when I'm dropping down. And on the way to step up to the ball, I don't see Bale come across and I think it was one of those where he probably just puts his leg, not for the ball, but to try and get in the way of me hitting the ball,” said the Nashville SC defender postgame. 

“I kind of went through him and still got the ball, but clever move. Wish I would have seen him out of the corner of my eye on trying to clear the ball, but it was instinctive, it was quick.”

Zimmerman’s center back partner, Fulham veteran Tim Ream, had a good vantage point on the play and had to tip his cap.

“At the end of the day, big players step up in big moments, and you have to give credit,” said Ream. “We all thought Matty was going to get a fingertip to it, but listen, Gareth has done it at the highest levels for a long, long time. And to have the confidence and the belief to put it where he did, with the power that he did, that’s him.

“At this level everyone's clever,” continued the former New York Red Bulls defender, now age 35. “And as soon as the guy comes from the blindside and jumps in front after [Zimmerman’s] already committed, there's nothing much you can do in that situation. I don't think he's done anything wrong, and he's gotten the ball but as he's gotten the ball, he's come through the man and again, it's one of those things that it's a hard pill to swallow.”

If results play out according to conventional wisdom and these two sides go neck and neck for second place in the group, the USMNT will now have to match or better Wales’ results vs. England and Iran, and hope Bale doesn’t have more of that magic in his boots.

The 33-year-old now has a program-record 41 goals in 109 career appearances for the Dragons. He’s led them to their first World Cup in 64 years and doesn’t seem inclined to shine away from the moment.

“When we got the penalty we knew who was taking it, one million percent. He's never let us down, has he? Once again it's all about Bale and rightly so,” Welsh manager Rob Page said.

“I said to him on about 75 minutes, 'Are you OK to carry on?' And he went: 'Yes, I'm fine.' And then at the end of the game he said, 'That's why I said I'm fine.'”

It was a second-half response everyone's grown to expect from Bale, who launched the free kick during a UEFA playoff vs. Ukraine that sent Wales here in the first place. Late on, they could've even snagged a winner before Friday's clash with Iran (5 am ET | FOX, Telemundo).

"Of course you feel the pressure, but it's my responsibility, my job to step up and take penalties as the penalty taker," Bale, who benefitted from striker Kieffer Moore's second-half introduction, told BBC Sport. "I'm happy to do that and obviously thankful it went in."