I keep thinking about Gareth Bale’s match-tying goal in Saturday’s MLS Cup, and how it shows how far MLS has come in just a few years.
Bale scored in the 128th minute – the 128th minute! – to tie the match, after Philadelphia’s Jack Elliott had scored in the 124th minute to take the lead. By the time Bale’s celebration had finished, it was already clear that the match was the best match in MLS history. Given the stage, given the situation, given the wild swings.
To sum up: LAFC took the lead twice, including with ten minutes to go in the second half, but Philadelphia equalized both times. The Union got the upper hand when LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was sent off in the second half, on the same play where he also shattered his leg, and took advantage with Elliott’s goal.
Even the penalty shootout was memorable; the Union missed all three of their attempts, including two saves from LAFC’s backup goalkeeper John McCarthy. How is that a thing?
But that Bale goal has to go down as one of the most famous goals in MLS history. It reminded me of one of the previous most famous goals in league history: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s first goal for the LA Galaxy, in 2018.
I was writing a book about MLS at the time, and Zlatan’s goal immediately became the centerpiece of the first chapter, only because it summed up so much about what MLS was like. Here you had one of the most famous players in all of world soccer, one who by any measure was into the twilight years of his career, coming to MLS with maximum bluster (there’d already been an ad in the Los Angeles Times that simply said, “Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome. – Zlatan”).
It was a local rivalry that had acquired a great nickname – El Tráfico – despite having absolutely no history (it was only LAFC’s third regular season match, ever). It was in the soccer capital of the United States. It was a match between MLS’s old flagship franchise and a team that, even then, was clearly going to be in the vanguard of the new wave.
Old MLS vs. new MLS, with a famous European star bringing the hype; it was the entire 23-year history of MLS, all in one match.
And here was Zlatan. He hadn’t played since December. He’d arrived in the United States about three days before. He’d been on the field six minutes. But he latched onto a bouncing header in midfield and volleyed it over the keeper, stranded in no man’s land, and then John Strong was yelling. COME ON! COME ONNN!
Saturday, Strong didn’t have time for near as much yelling, so surprising was Bale’s goal. All he got out was a Martin Tyler-esque “BAAAAAAAALE!”
So why, you’re asking, is this an example of how far MLS has come?
Earlier this summer, LAFC made two huge, stunning signings, of utterly famous European players. Bale, the Welshman, was lately of Real Madrid, and – fallings-out with the club aside – had scored in the Champions League final for them. Giorgio Chiellini, the enthusiastic Italian warrior, had won four thousand trophies at Juventus and had, eleven months earlier, just been lifting the European Championship trophy with Italy.
Four years prior, Ibrahimovic had – with barely any training – strolled onto the field and scored the equalizer and the winner, for a team that desperately needed him and the star power that he provided.
In 2022, Bale and Chiellini… didn’t play that much? Chiellini dealt with injuries, making just nine starts. Bale was even less effective, starting only twice, and turning into the biggest-name second-half sub in the league.
He didn’t even see the field until extra time against Philadelphia, entering in the 97th minute for a gassed Carlos Vela.
LAFC didn’t win the Double because of their European imports. They won it because they got a tune out of Ilie, a free agent from Sporting Kansas City, and traded for Crepeau (from Vancouver) to shore up their disastrous goalkeeping, and pried Ryan Hollingshead out of FC Dallas and Kellyn Acosta out of the Colorado Rapids.
On the other side of the ball, Philadelphia had a bunch of guys who they’d developed through their second team, and a guy from Hungary, and another one from Norway. Oh, and one American by way of the German second division.
LAFC has some Colombian guys, and an Ecuadorian guy, and one from the French second division, none of them particularly expensive. They do have Vela, their one big star from Mexico.
Ever since David Beckham first landed in America as the very first Designated Player in MLS history, the die was cast: the biggest name, for the biggest amount of money, that the club could possibly afford. That was what it took to make a splash, to make a difference.
But now, you look around and you don’t see huge names making the same difference. Toronto missed the playoffs despite signing Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi in the middle of the year. Chicago got Xherdan Shaqiri, but still stinks. Inter Miami missed the playoffs even though they signed 167% of their allotted designated players.
Instead, you’ve got LAFC building a solid team from top to bottom. Seattle won the CONCACAF Champions League not by throwing money everywhere, but by building an excellent roster, acquiring talent through all sorts of avenues.
Frankly, Zlatan’s arrival in 2018 was exciting, but at the time things did feel a little bit hopeless for clubs that weren’t getting Ibrahimovices. Atlanta United was spending huge money on coaches and young, exciting players from South America. LAFC had Vela.
Philadelphia and LAFC’s outstanding seasons should give the rest of the league hope. Getting the right players, from inside the league and out, and developing young players through reserve teams – these are things that any team can do. It’s not about big names; it’s about the right players.