The idea of MLS as a retirement home has been a misnomer for a while. While the league might not pull in the biggest players in the world in their prime, it certainly isn’t waiting around until they can’t move anymore, for the most part (those watching Douglas Costa for the Galaxy might disagree). Two of the league’s biggest signings this season, Xherdan Shaqiri and Lorenzo Insigne, are barely into their 30s and were either leaving or just had left some of the biggest clubs in the world. For every Gonzalo Higuaín, there’s two or three players making the most of it.
But what about MLS as a training league?
If only temporarily, and only with one team, but that’s kind of the impression you get of LAFC’s capture of Gareth Bale for the rest of the season, and possibly next season. Bale signed for the league-leaders yesterday on a contract for the rest of 2022 with an option for 2023.
To any outside observer, Bale showing up in the States is only confirmation of the league being a rest home, but that’s really only because Bale treated even Madrid as a rest home. After Wales qualified for the World Cup a couple weeks ago, talk of Bale simply retiring from the game disappeared, as he now had the chance to appear on the sport’s biggest stage for the first time, as well as with the national team that he still cares deeply about representing. However, his contract with Real Madrid had run out and he wasn’t going to show up in Qatar fresh from the beach. Or maybe he would? The leading thought was that Bale would join Cardiff City, whose base happens to be right next to the Wales national team base, where Bale has been undergoing a special training regimen. Somehow, Bale found L.A. to be a more alluring destination than Cardiff.
Bale can probably find a slightly more palatable run-up to Qatar in MLS than getting the shit kicked out of him in the Championship on some muddy field in Bristol. The MLS campaign also ends completely on October 9th, and that’s for the MLS Cup combatants, which would give Bale a solid month-long break or longer before the World Cup starts. That’s preferable for a couple reasons. One, the European season is going to run up right into the tournament, with only a week between leagues breaking and the kickoff in Qatar (and Wales play the US on the first day). Two, seeing as how Bale only appeared seven times for Madrid this past season, playing regularly for just over three months and then getting another break in is probably all he’s built for at the moment. Cramming in 15-20 appearances in two and a half months in the Championship and then going right to the World Cup might not be his best prep.
But as it always is with Bale, how interested is he in the things that LAFC are interested in? Is he just showing up for his own personal training camp? LAFC are the favorites to win the league at the moment, and it would be their first MLS Cup for what has become perhaps the biggest team in the league with the most fervent fanbase. They talk about rainy Wednesday nights in January in Stoke, but how’s Bale going to feel about a Western Conference Final in or against Seattle if he feels the slightest twinge? This is a man who couldn’t be bothered for Champions League games.
Bale was only part of LAFC’s day yesterday, as they also announced that they’d extended Carlos Vela’s contract through 2023. There had been some question whether Vela would stick around, as maybe he had hoped to squeeze out one more big contract from someone in Europe. Whether that just didn’t materialize or he preferred life with The Black and Gold, that’s where he’ll be. Vela, much like Bale, can tear an opponent apart when he feels like it, it’s just a question of when and where he’s going to feel like it. This is the same guy who pilfered MLS for 34 goals and 10 assists in 2019, and then has only managed 15 and eight in 41 appearances in the three seasons since through a combination of injury and indifference.
Both of these announcements only trailed by a few days that Giorgio Chellieni was also joining up. Chiellini might fit more into the preconceived notions that some have about MLS, given that he’s 37. Still, he’s only a year removed from anchoring Italy’s European Championship title and is a Juventus legend. He’s also not the type to simply show up and collect a check, so if there’s anything left in the tank he’ll be a boon for LAFC and the league.
How Vela and Bale fit into the same team is a question, as both are left-footed and both are at their best drifting in from the right wing. One could be deployed as a straight #10, more likely Vela, though manager Steve Cherundolo has usually opted for a 4-3-3 that doesn’t have a #10. Deploying either Bale or Vela in more of a midfield role is begging to get torn through when they don’t have the ball.
If you’re a LAFC supporter, you certainly can’t ask more of your team, and it turns up the pressure on Seattle, NYCFC, Montreal, Austin, Red Bulls, or whoever else has designs on taking home MLS Cup. Sadly, the league’s byzantine and confounding salary cap and roster rules don’t really allow for an arms race that LAFC are having amongst themselves. There are plenty within the league who wish it would, and you know all the ones outside of it who do as well. The other issue is that given MLS’s playoff structure, you can amass whatever you’d like on the roster and one bad night sends you home. A spot in the CONCACAF Champions League next spring isn’t much of a comfort.
If Bale is interested and healthy, he becomes a must watch. If he’s merely around for a glorified workout program, LAFC is almost certainly strong enough anyway to deal with it. But the league needs star power, an attraction, and Bale and Vela on song together would certainly be that.