Gareth Bale looked exhausted. Then he woke up to win the MLS Cup and just in time to scare the USMNT
For about two months, Gareth Bale’s descent from superstardom to insignificance seemed to have hit rock bottom. After arriving in Los Angeles to much fanfare, he was permanently relegated to an MLS bench. LAFC was better without him; Wales knew it wouldn’t be, but Bale’s master plan to prepare for the 2022 World Cup had gone awry.
On Saturday, however, a world-class player emerged from the shadows, reminding America in more ways than one that he’s still around Gareth Bale.
He leapfrogged Jack Elliott, broke Philadelphia Union hearts and paved the way for LAFC to an MLS Cup triumph.
“It’s Gareth who is Gareth,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said after the game. “He’s a great player. Great qualities. A guy who makes big plays. Let’s hope he doesn’t do it in the first game of the World Cup.”
Cherundolo implied that, of course Miscellaneous Viewpoint of Saturday’s thriller in Los Angeles. The country that stunned Bale is the one that faces him in Qatar in two weeks from Monday. His MLS struggles had brightened the prospects for the US men’s national team’s inaugural day. But his MLS Cup exploits in all likelihood showed that the past few months have been fool’s gold.
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Bale had long since fallen from the otherworldly levels that made him the most expensive footballer of all time in 2013. He’d lost a step or three and given up the direct dribbling that terrified any opponent who dared get in his way. He’d become a more stationary playmaker and dead-ball specialist, and still a damn good one for a while.
But he faded. golfing and fading.
He experienced a brief renaissance at Tottenham. But he returned to a Real Madrid squad that didn’t want him, spent most of the 2021-22 season on the sidelines and then went in search of a new club.
LAFC guaranteed him $2.4 million and offered him a comfortable seat to prepare for his first World Championship. Together they formulated a plan. “We are clever and preparing for the last important part of the season,” said Bale in September. “Hopefully that should put me in top shape for the World Cup.”
And early on, coming on from the bench, he showed his signature class.
But when he got his first start, LAFC lost 4-1.
When he was off the field throughout the 2022 season leading up to Saturday’s final, LAFC scored 69 goals and conceded 31.
When he was, LAFC scored three goals and conceded nine.
He showed no willingness or ability to pressure. He looked frail and dull, even in the league with the most pedestrians he’d seen since he was 17. He struggled with injuries but was also an unused substitute twice. En route to the finals, he hadn’t played in over a month. He had only logged six minutes since mid-September. His most likely role against Union was “Non-Factor”.
On the other hand, so is he Gareth Bale. He once won and sealed a Champions League final that he didn’t start with an overhead kick and a 40-yard belter.
“It’s always nice to score points in the final,” he said on Saturday. “I seem to have a knack for it.”
And that’s exactly what should worry the USMNT.
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Bale is no longer a player who will change the shape of a game at his pace. He’s no longer a single player to schedule, nor a 90-minute threat.
And for a while it seemed his deterioration was affecting Wales. After struggling for game time at LAFC, he looked rather normal in September, as did the Welshman as a team. They looked beatable in defeats to Belgium and Poland. And they definitely are.
But Bale, like he did on Saturday, can still change a game on the fly. He can win a towering header or ping a devilish free kick. He can and will be a creative hub for Wales on November 21. And he could win this game too.
He was told on Saturday that Cherundolo wishes he didn’t beat USA
“I’m sure he doesn’t,” Bale said of his coach. “But I will try it.”