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Men’s football Bale sets sights across the pond

JAMES NALTON writes about what the Welshman’s future could look like after announcing a sensational move to MLS side Los Angeles FC

GARETH BALE announced a sensational move to Major League Soccer this week, signing an initial 12-month deal with Los Angeles FC.

The Welshman’s contract with Real Madrid expired at the end of the 2021-22 season and many thought he might join hometown club Cardiff City, but a move to MLS was always on the cards, though few predicted LAFC would be his destination.

MLS is currently halfway through its 2022 regular season, so Bale could immediately get the game-time needed to prepare for the World Cup.

The first game in which he’s eligible to play would be the El Traffico derby against LA Galaxy next weekend.

“I am extremely excited for this move to LAFC,” the 32-year-old said after his signing was announced by the club on Monday.

“This is the right place for me and my family and the right time in my career.

“I cannot wait to get started working with the team and getting ready to win more trophies in Los Angeles.”

The talismanic captain of Wales has helped his country’s men’s team qualify for their first World Cup since 1958. He scored six goals in total in World Cup qualifying including all three as Wales defeated Austria and Ukraine in the playoffs.

It’s been a different story recently for Bale with his club, Real Madrid, though. He’s a five-time Champions League winner with the side from the Spanish capital but made just seven appearances for them in all competitions last season. In 2021 and 2022 he made more appearances for Wales than for Real.

Despite his lack of games last season and troubles towards the end of his time in Madrid, there is confidence in MLS that Bale can make an impact and that at 32 he still has enough athleticism to trouble defences in the league.

Bale will join LAFC initially on a far lower wage than that he was receiving in Spain, though it’s likely to increase if the initial 12-month deal is extended.

If that extension is triggered he’ll likely move onto a Designated Player (DP) contract — a player whose wage is allowed to go over the salary cap — until the end of 2024.

The signing was a statement of intent from LAFC, who joined MLS in 2018 hoping to rival fellow Californian side LA Galaxy and succeed where a now-folded Los Angeles-area team, Chivas USA, failed.

LAFC, who play their home games at a soccer-specific stadium (ie not shared with an NFL team) in Exposition Park in south LA, regularly boast a squad that’s up there with the best in the league, but so far they have failed to win the coveted MLS Cup awarded to the winners of the post-season playoffs.

They did top the overall league standings in 2019, lifting the Supporters’ Shield with former Arsenal forward Carlos Vela claiming the Golden Boot and MVP awards. The Mexican has been the club’s marquee player since they joined the league, and the 33-year-old signed an extension to his own DP contract this week. But in MLS the playoff winners, not the regular season league leaders, are considered champions.

LAFC hope the addition of Bale and legendary Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, 36, to an already talented squad will propel them from an impressive-looking side to a winning one.

Last season they didn’t even make the playoffs — the first time they have failed to do so in their four seasons in the league.

They have started 2022 strongly, though, topping both the Western Conference and the overall standings after 16 games.

The signing of Bale came relatively out of the blue with many tipping Wayne Rooney’s former MLS club, DC United, as the possible destination for the Welshman. That he’s arrived initially not on a DP contract has been seen as even more of a coup for the Western Conference side.

This transfer, and indeed that of Chiellini, has hinted at a return to Major League Soccer’s tendency to sign older star names who may be past their peak in Europe. This has led it to be dubbed a “retirement league” in the past, and though it may never shake that tag, there is now more to the league than famous old stars.

One of LAFC’s other key players is 23-year-old Ecuadorian Jose Cifuentes, for example. Many young players from South America have looked to use the league as a stepping stone to clubs in Europe or more lucrative contracts on their return south.

Miguel Almiron may be the most obvious recent example of this in action. The Paraguayan joined Newcastle from Atlanta United in 2019, and though his move has not been a complete success, it showed the pathway is there.

New York City FC’s 23-year-old Argentine striker Valentin “Taty” Castellanos has attracted interest from numerous Premier League clubs and could make the move across the Atlantic this summer.

Elsewhere, US and Canadian players have also developed in the league before moving to European sides. Alphonso Davies moved to Bayern Munich from Vancouver Whitecaps in 2019, while 28-year-old goalkeeper Matt Turner showed it’s not just the younger players who can make the move, as he joins Arsenal from New England Revolution this summer.

Bale will hope his journey in the opposite direction will get him up to peak fitness in time for the World Cup, but MLS is not an easy ride. There’s a lot of travel involved and some games will be played on artificial pitches, which aren’t always easy on older players’ joints.

Thierry Henry, for example, would regularly avoid any away games played on artificial pitches during his time in MLS with New York Red Bulls.

But the hope and expectation is that Bale will go all-in on his new venture, though maybe American soccer fans will hope that he doesn’t get too up to speed this season as the United States are in the same group as Wales at the World Cup.

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