For roughly two months, Gareth Bale's decline from superstardom into irrelevance seemed to have thudded to rock bottom. After arriving in Los Angeles to much fanfare, he had been relegated firmly to an MLS bench. LAFC was better without him; Wales knew it wouldn't be, but Bale's master plan to ready himself for the 2022 World Cup had gone awry.
On Saturday, though, a world-class player arose from the shadows, and reminded America, in more ways than one, that he is still Gareth Bale.
He leapt above Jack Elliott, and broke Philadelphia Union hearts, and paved LAFC's way to an MLS Cup triumph.
“It’s Gareth being Gareth," LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said postgame. "He’s a big player. Big qualities. A guy who makes big plays. Let’s hope he doesn’t in the first game of the World Cup.”
Cherundolo, of course, was hinting at the other angle of Saturday's thriller in Los Angeles. The country that Bale stunned is the one who'll face him two weeks from Monday in Qatar. His MLS struggles had brightened the opening-day outlook for the U.S. men's national team. But his MLS Cup heroics showed, in all likelihood, that the past few months have been fool's gold.
Bale's game-changing ability finally delivers for LAFC
Bale had long since fallen from the otherworldly levels that, in 2013, made him soccer's most expensive player ever. He'd lost a step or three, and ditched the direct dribbling that terrified any opponent who dared invade his path. He'd become a more stationary playmaker and dead-ball specialist, and still a darn good one for a while.
But he was fading. Golfing, and fading.
He enjoyed a brief renaissance at Tottenham. But he returned to a Real Madrid squad that didn't want him, spent most of 2021-22 on the sidelines, and then went in search of a new club.
LAFC guaranteed him $2.4 million, and offered him a comfy spot to prepare for his first World Cup. Together, they formulated a plan. "We’re being clever and building myself up for the last important part of the season," Bale said in September. "Hopefully that should put me in great shape for the World Cup."
And early on, coming off the bench, he showed his trademark class.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 24, 2022
But when he got his first start, LAFC lost 4-1.
When he wasn't on the field, throughout the 2022 season, up until Saturday's final, LAFC scored 69 goals and conceded 31.
When he was, LAFC scored three and conceded nine.
He showed no willingness or ability to press. He looked fragile and pedestrian, even in the most pedestrian league he'd seen since he was 17. He struggled with injury, but was also twice an unused substitute. Heading into the final, he had not played in over a month. He'd logged only six minutes since mid-September. His most likely role against the Union was "non-factor."
Then again, though, he is Gareth Bale. He once won and sealed a Champions League final that he didn't start with a bicycle kick and a 40-yard belter.
"It's always nice to score in finals," he said Saturday. "I seem to have a knack of doing that."
And that, precisely, is what should worry the USMNT.
USMNT on notice after Bale's MLS Cup heroics
Bale is no longer a player who will change the shape of a game with his pace. He is no longer a singular player to game plan for, nor a 90-minute menace.
And for a while, his deterioration seemed as if it would affect Wales. After struggling for game time at LAFC, he looked rather ordinary in September, and so did the Welsh as a team. They looked beatable in losses to Belgium and Poland. And they definitely are.
But Bale, as he did Saturday, can still change a game in an instant. He can win a towering header, or ping a devilish free kick. He can, and will be a creative fulcrum for Wales on Nov. 21. And he might just win that game, too.
He was told Saturday that Cherundolo wishes he won't beat the U.S.
“I’m sure he doesn’t," Bale said of his coach. "But I’ll be trying to.”