Column: Gareth Bale signing with LAFC showcases how U.S. is winning over European stars
Once the world’s most expensive soccer player, Bale signed a cut-rate deal with LAFC because the team can guarantee the Welsh attacker the minutes necessary to prepare for the World Cup.
The opponent for Wales in its group-stage opener on Nov. 21: the U.S.
“I’ve asked that he take that game off,” LAFC general manager John Thorrington said with a laugh.
Thorrington recalled kidding Bale about the U.S.-Wales showdown by telling him, “You’re going to be peaking after. We’ll set up your periodization so that you’re not quite ready for that game.”
Save for the potential consequences for the U.S. national team, the one-year contract with the man-bunned Bale has absolutely no downside for LAFC.
Bale, who turns 33 next month, will be paid $1.3 million — or about what he earned in two weeks with his previous team, Real Madrid of Spain.
He also won’t count as one of the team’s three designated players, at least not until the team exercises the option to extend his contract by 18 months.
The modest down payment ensures that Bale won’t sink LAFC the way, say, Giovani dos Santos did the Galaxy or how Xherdan Shaqiri can the Chicago Fire.
The structure of the contract speaks to Bale’s commitment to Wales’ first World Cup appearance in 64 years. Thorrington said he heard from Bale’s agency “minutes” after the country qualified for the tournament. Major League Soccer plays games in the summer, unlike most leagues around the world, for which the period is their offseason.
But the deal also reveals how the U.S. is viewed by European-based stars. Whatever problems this country has, millionaire soccer players want to come here. They party here. They spend their offseasons here. And more than a couple of them are now playing here, including some who still have mileage left in their legs.
The aforementioned Shaqiri, who played for Bayern Munich and Liverpool, is 30. He is expected to represent Switzerland at the World Cup.
Lorenzo Insigne, who is 31 and is still one of Italy’s best attackers, will join Toronto FC next month. Former Argentina international Gonzalo Higuain was 32 when he moved to Inter Miami.
With each of these high-profile transfers, the stigmas associated with MLS have gradually diminished to where it wouldn’t be a surprise if Lionel Messi finishes his career in the league.
Messi remains a world-class player but is now 35 and just endured a nightmare season with Paris Saint-Germain of France’s Ligue 1. Why wouldn’t he move to MLS after the World Cup? He already has an offseason residence in Miami.
LAFC is the latest beneficiary of MLS’s improved status, as it will add not only Bale next month but also former Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini, who last year won a European championship with Italy.
Except Thorrington shopped in the European market in a cost-effective method reminiscent of Andrew Friedman’s Dodgers or Les Snead’s Rams before trade deadlines.
As is the case with Bale, the 37-year-old Chiellini won’t be a designated player. Bale and Chiellini will be to LAFC what Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller were to the Rams last year.
With LAFC in first place, Thorrington said he was more concerned with finding players who could complement the existing roster rather than name players who could raise the team’s public profile.
“I do admit after the news broke yesterday, I was overwhelmed at the scale of how big this is,” Thorrington said. “But that wasn’t my focus and that wasn’t our club’s focus and I honestly don’t think that’s Gareth’s focus.”
Thorrington said plans were for Bale to play as a center forward or on a wing opposite of Carlos Vela.
The acquisitions of Bale and Chiellini remain consistent with LAFC’s broader philosophy to devote a significant part of its financial resources to young players, especially from Latin American who can later be flipped for a profit.
“This does not detract from that,” Thorrington said.
One of the team’s designated-player spots belongs to longtime franchise cornerstone Vela, who just agreed to an extension through the 2023 season. The other is Brian Rodriguez, a 22-year-old attacker from Uruguay.
Cristian Arango and Diego Palacios scored three minutes apart in the second half to lead LAFC to a 2-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls.
The third DP slot previously belonged to Diego Rossi, who has since moved on to Fenerbahce of Turkey. Rossi was 19 when he signed with LAFC. The deals with Bale and Chiellini wouldn’t prevent the team from giving that position to the next Rossi.
If anything, Thorrington argued that Bale‘s and Chiellini’s influence could accelerate the development of the team’s young players.
Once again, there’s no downside here.
The worst-case scenario is that LAFC learns the reasons for Bale’s benching at Real Madrid were more serious than it imagined, that he isn’t anywhere near the player for which the Spanish giants paid a then-record $106.5 million in 2013.
But, hey, at least the U.S. will know its first World Cup opponent’s primary threat is washed up.
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