Are all the golfing jokes out of the system yet? Have all connected the dots that the Los Angeles Country Club is hosting the 2023 U.S. Open and that Gareth Bale’s new deal with LAFC, before a reported 18-month option can be triggered, coincidentally ends right around tee time? O.K. Perhaps there’s room for one more.
Bale’s move to L.A. is anything but par for the course for LAFC, and it’s an intriguing wrinkle for a club currently leading the MLS Supporters’ Shield race and a player desperately trying to stay in form for his nation’s first World Cup in 64 years.
The news this weekend that Bale’s next step after a trophy-filled-yet-tumultuous time at Real Madrid will take place in L.A. came seemingly out of nowhere. Until Wales qualified for the World Cup, retirement for a player turning 33 next month seemed like a realistic possibility. He had previously been linked with D.C. United, and Inter Miami held his MLS discovery rights, which required LAFC to pay $75,000 in allocation money for the privilege of signing a free agent, but his landing spot spawns all sorts of talking points.
Before luring another decorated free agent, Giorgio Chiellini, to L.A. this summer, LAFC had largely resisted going for the older, accomplished European stars like some of its MLS counterparts (like, for instance, the neighboring and rival Galaxy, against whom Bale and Chiellini could make their club debuts on July 8). Its summer splash represents a change of philosophy as it goes in search of a second Shield and first MLS Cup. Yet for all of the chiding of Bale for his tenure at Real Madrid—the infamous “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order” banner was particularly combustible—he’s a five-time Champions League winner who was instrumental in much of the club’s success in that time.
Recent seasons have been defined by injuries, falling out of favor, transfer sagas and questions about his viability both in the short and long term, but few bring the big-game credentials he can boast: Match-winning goals in two Champions League finals—including one of the greatest all-time goals in a final—a converted penalty in a shootout in another and an overall trophy haul most would dream of achieving. He’s clearly not the player who once commanded a world-record transfer fee nine years ago, but LAFC isn’t paying him like that, either. Like Zlatan Ibrahimović’s first year in MLS, Bale is signed at a substantial discount, with Targeted Allocation Money ensuring he won’t occupy a Designated Player spot. According to The Athletic, his one-year deal is worth up to roughly $1.6 million, with an 18-month option that could be triggered next summer and make him rise to DP-level.
For Bale, he’s joining a team primed to make a deep run in the playoffs. That matters, considering MLS Cup is Nov. 5 and the World Cup starts just over two weeks later. Were Bale to join an MLS team with perilously low playoff hopes—see, D.C. United—he could be out of action starting Oct. 9, the last day of the regular season. Instead, there should be a considerably shorter lag time in action for Wales’s top star (although given it’s MLS, there’s always a risk of an early-round crash-out for the prohibitive favorite). With LAFC as stacked as it is, it can afford to bring Bale along on a measured timetable without having to force him into the thick of the action, and given that Bale will want to be peaking come the fall, both stand to gain from their arrangement.
“The benefit of him joining a group like we already have is we’ll play him as much as we can. We expect him to be a top, top player for us and in this league, but we will do so sensibly,” LAFC GM John Thorrington told the Associated Press. “I think when Gareth is looking at what he needs to do, his priority will be at LAFC. But we’re not naive to the fact that he like some other players of ours have a World Cup on the horizon. How we manage his preparation ahead of that will be important to Gareth and for the success of LAFC.”
It’s unique that Bale chose a U.S adventure instead of staying closer to home—he had recently been spotted at Cardiff City’s training ground—as it should surprise no one that the World Cup is his chief focus. It’s certainly unique that Bale will go play for a decorated former U.S. international in Steve Cherundolo and team with a likely U.S. World Cup midfielder in Kellyn Acosta just months before they presumably meet as opponents on the opening day of the 2022 World Cup. But whatever advanced scouting Cherundolo and Acosta can supply for U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter, it still is in the interest of the player to be in a competitive environment, playing for a team eyeing trophies as he gets set to take his nation into uncharted territory in its modern era.
Right now, the priorities for Bale are likely “Wales. LAFC. Golf. In that order,” and for the price the MLS club is paying, that’s probably writing on a celebration flag that it can stomach—especially if it leads to a banner with its name and logo on it being unfurled next winter.
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