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LAFC 2022 Player Postmortem: Gareth Bale

We will always have that goal.

MLS: MLS Cup Championship-Philadelphia Union vs Los Angeles FC Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Gareth Bale was the most shocking transfer in MLS in 2022, and his coming to LAFC turned the title frontrunners into stone-cold locks to take trophies. But, it wasn’t as smooth as that narrative would suggest.

The Welsh superstar was coming off a tenure with Real Madrid that was filled with peaks and valleys. The most expensive transfer in soccer history when he signed there, he was a regular in the first half of his tenure, scoring incredible goals to help win the Champions League and Copa del Rey, but falling out of favor in the back half of his time at the club, getting sent back to Tottenham on loan for a season and barely featuring at all last season, when Real Madrid won a La Liga-Champions League double.

As a result, and with Bale looking for a place to get playing time but also properly manage his minutes with the World Cup looming, he shocked the world and signed with LAFC, on a one-year TAM deal, with the option to extend, to be a Designated Player if he does stay longer than a year.

Fans, media and rival teams around the team accused LAFC of fudging the numbers to make Bale a TAM player, and I guess we’ll see if there was any malfeasance down the line, but on some level a TAM deal does make sense on a short-term basis: Bale was nearly retired last season, and whether he was exaggerating injury to get out of featuring for Real Madrid — a serious charge made by some fans and parts of the Spanish press — or whether he was actually not 100% was unclear.

On the basis of his half-ish season with LAFC, well, he certainly doesn’t seem like anything close to a 90-minute player. Head coach Steve Cherundolo preached patience with Bale, saying that when the player joined in July he was in his personal preseason, and...honestly, he never fully left that zone.

Here are Bale’s stats with LAFC in 2022:

Gareth Bale LAFC 2022 Statistics

2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
Regular Season 12 2 347 2 0 17 7 0 0
U.S. Open Cup 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Playoffs 1 0 23 1 0 1 1 0 0
Total 13 2 370 3 0 18 8 0 0

There’s a few issues that limited Bale’s minutes. One was the fitness/health side, and while Cherundolo never said Bale was in a bad way, he brought the star along slowly. Like very slowly. Like even in the playoffs, when you assumed Bale would be playing in the business end of the season, he wasn’t in the squad for the first game and didn’t play in the second. Frankly, that’s deeply weird, especially when Cherundolo said Bale wasn’t hurt but couldn’t play in the first playoff game, with no further explanation.

In addition, believe it or not but LAFC didn’t always need Bale on the field. I know that sounds crazy, but LAFC had Carlos Vela, Cristian Arango, Jose Cifuentes, they brought in Denis Bouanga and he played major minutes immediately, and a bench option like Kwadwo Opoku getting regular run. Bale’s profile was quite a bit different than all of those players, but unlike most superstars getting signed in MLS, LAFC had the luxury to bring him along slowly, which they did.

And part of that is because there was an immediate chemistry problem when LAFC’s midseason additions joined the fray. While Giorgio Chiellini fit in on the backline hand in glove immediately, Cherundolo never quite figured out how to get the top players all playing at once. Assuming Bale would play as a wide forward, able to cut in from the flank, those are Vela and Bouanga’s spots, and Cherundolo trusted them. That’s not to say Bale couldn’t replace one of them, but based on form and fitness, it wasn’t needed. Meanwhile, if Bale were to be a No. 9, that would remove Arango from the lineup, and Arango really found his form in the second half of the season. There were definitely times when it seemed like Bale and Vela wanted to make similar runs, or float into the same spots. When that happened, the attack became static, and LAFC’s team defense suffered — Vela picks his spots and still does track back to defend but I don’t know if anyone was expecting Bale to do much defending, and the team’s performance suffered.

Still, Bale had a few good plays. His goal against Real Salt Lake, pretty much dragging Justen Glad with him around half the field, unwillingly, was a glimpse of why he’s considered one of the best players of his generation.

And then there’s the goal.

In the MLS Cup Final, it was shocking to see Cherundolo take Vela off the field early in extra time. At the time, I figured Vela would have normally had a fit in that situation, but he seemed to understand, because the player replacing him was Bale. Still, it was a huge risk, considering Bale had never really looked comfortable yet playing for LAFC and hadn’t featured at all in the playoffs.

But Bale scored the most important goal in LAFC history, with the final deep in extra time stoppage time, LAFC playing with 10 men and trailing 3-2, their hope of winning their first MLS Cup, at home, dying in front of their very eyes, Diego Palacios hit the endline and sent a bloop cross to the near post. Bale was in the right spot, and scored the latest goal in MLS history, in the 128th minute, to take the game to a penalty shootout.

Listen, Bale didn’t play a major role to win the Supporters’ Shield, he was a passenger for most of the playoffs, but for that goal? The signing was entirely worth it, no question about it.

Now moving forward...we’ll see. Like Vela, Bale’s contract is unusual in MLS, and the initial term of it is supposed to expire in the summer of 2023. There’s been considerable speculation that Bale will retire now that he’s led Wales to the World Cup, but he seemed to dismiss that in recent days, saying he plans to continue playing for Wales as long as they want him. It seems unlikely he will be a player who retires on the club front but still plays international soccer, so it looks like we should expect him in LAFC’s training camp in January.

From there, I hope Bale can find a rhythm with LAFC and can contribute more regularly. They always say having an abundance of options is a “good problem” for the coach, and Cherundolo will have some dilemmas, but with LAFC in Champions League, league play, the U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup next year, there will be plenty of minutes to go around and squad rotation will be paramount. Hopefully Bale can build on his heroics in the MLS Cup Final and truly show his superstar form with the black-and-gold moving forward.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.