Less than 20 minutes into only his second Major League Soccer game, Gareth Bale scored a goal that could have served as a mission statement. Introduced off the bench with Los Angeles FC already 1-0 up against Sporting KC, the Welsh winger, who needs game time to find his best form before the 2022 World Cup, produced a performance that grew sharper with every minute and culminated in a quick transition strike to kill the game at 2-0.
Another typical Bale goal quickly followed in a 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake in which the 33-year-old strode past two opponents at the byline to fire home from a tight angle. Two goals in three appearances off the bench represented a good start to his MLS career, but Bale has struggled to build on this. In fact, he hasn’t scored another goal in the two months since his strike at Rio Tinto Stadium.
In fact, Bale hasn’t even completed a full MLS match, and has started just two of the 12 games he has featured in for LAFC since joining from Real Madrid in June. Steve Cherundolo’s team clinched the Supporters’ Shield with victory over the Portland Timbers on Sunday and will be among the favourites to win this year’s MLS Cup with the playoffs set to start later this month, but Bale has hardly had a hand in their success.
The measure of Bale’s time at LAFC was always likely to be different. As long as he arrives in Qatar for the World Cup in good shape, he will consider his decision to make the move to MLS vindicated. Bale once infamously waved a flag that read “Wales, golf, Madrid – in that order,” and his club might still be at the bottom of the list.
“We have a plan in LA with what we’re doing,” Bale recently said when asked to assess his own impact in MLS. “We’re not doing too much straight away. Every footballer wants to play as much as they can, but we’re being clever and building myself up for the last important part of the season. Hopefully that should put me in great shape for the World Cup. I think I’ll be a lot fitter.”
Wales manager Robert Page’s comments hinted at underlying dissatisfaction at his best player’s situation. “What he does from now until the first game [of the World Cup] against USA … we will be in contact with the club and help manage those minutes,” Page said after bemoaning not being able to use Bale across all 180 minutes against Belgium and Poland in the Nations League due to his lack of fitness.
Page knows Bale can be a difference-maker for Wales in Qatar. He is the country’s all-time top scorer (40 goals in 108 caps) and the player who secured World Cup qualification in the first place, scoring three goals in the playoff semi-finals and final. At his best, Bale can win a match on his own. For Wales, his fitness could be the difference between a last 16 appearance and a group stage exit.
LAFC may not have much incentive to increase Bale’s game time before he heads to Qatar. This may seem somewhat peculiar given the Welshman’s individual quality and record at the elite level of European soccer, but Cherundolo has a system that already works well without Bale and with the playoffs almost here there isn’t much scope for experimentation between now and November.
Many argued Bale’s move to MLS would afford him more freedom to gain fitness and match sharpness than would have been the case in the Premier League or another of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues. However, MLS’s relative parity makes rotation difficult, even for a team like LAFC who appeared a good bet to make the playoffs from early on.
On top of this, MLS’s travel schedule makes the season a gruelling one. In Spain, Bale’s longest away day involved an hour or two on a chartered plane. In the Premier League, most away matches can be reached on a bus. In MLS, though, Bale is regularly travelling across multiple time zones, sometimes on commercial flights.
It may not be until the World Cup is out of the way that MLS sees the best of Bale. Only then will the winger be able to clear his mind and fully commit to life at LAFC with a full pre-season ahead of him to get ready for the 2023 campaign. Even then, Bale could struggle to build momentum as he is only contracted until next summer. A decision on his long-term future will have to be made.
There have been glimpses of brilliance from Bale in MLS, which will have offered encouragement to Page and Wales. At 33, he has lost some of the pace that made him so explosive earlier in his career, but the ability remains. Once Bale has finished making sure Wales can unlock that ability at the World Cup, he may get round to doing the same for LAFC in MLS.