The jersey reads “LA,” but Los Angeles isn’t where he’s from.
No, Gareth Bale is from the television.
Scoring goals and raising trophies in distant soccer scenes, playing for clubs like Real Madrid and Tottenham, living a young celebrity’s existence across the pond.
So on this sweltering summer night at Geodis Park, what is he doing here?
Answer: He’s banging on a door in a hallway in the visitor’s locker room. He’s peering in through glass and playfully distracting new teammate Georgio Chiellini’s postgame interview while awaiting his own. He’s smiling like he knows something you don’t. He’s clearly enjoying his LAFC debut – and a 2-1 victory over Nashville SC.
It’s funny. Surprising, too. The kind of thing an amused teenager might do after a high school game – because he hasn’t felt the media’s love and spotlight before.
Bale, he definitely has.
He’s probably the greatest player ever for his native Wales. From the moment he signed this summer, long before setting foot on Nashville’s field as a second-half substitute, he became the most well-known, most celebrated player in Major League Soccer.
Mere happenstance that Nashville was the staging ground for Bale’s debut – as well as that of Italian legend Chiellini. But Geodis Park was packed Sunday night. There was a tangible buzz in the sold-out crowd. Soon as the game ended, some fool sprinted out of the seats and ran the length of the field to embrace Bale and try to take a selfie with him before security eventually caught up and pounced.
Yeah, this was a big deal, a moment larger than one player or one team or one defeat for Nashville SC.
And yet, there’s Bale in that hallway – off the TV and making faces – in a sense demonstrating what might just make him different from so many other big-name European players who landed in MLS.
Those guys were past their prime. Bale is not.
He just turned 33, and he looks younger. He plays younger. He acts younger. He sounds younger.
“I haven’t come here just to wind down,” Bale says. “I want to try and contribute as much as I can to this team and try to win games and trophies.”
Bale is far from the first international superstar in MLS, of course. David Beckham once famously made it onto a field in Los Angeles, too. Since then, the list has grown to include the late stages of celebrated careers like Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Wayne Rooney and others.
These over-the-hill signings were portrayed as a path toward MLS growth and relevancy, but they didn’t boost the league’s global reputation as much as some might have anticipated. Yes, they generated headlines and sold jerseys and tickets, but they continued to push the condescending notion of MLS as little more than a seniors tour for international stars seeking to ease into their final years with comfortable anonymity and a waning desire to work to win.
Which means they haven’t often been a great strategy for teams, either.
Wise clubs have worked like Nashville SC’s when it entered MLS a few years ago. At the time, GM Mike Jacobs stressed that he had no desire to chase clout via overpriced, aging stars from Europe’s top leagues. Instead, Nashville built a core of proven MLS veterans and its first big signing was an undervalued gem from the Danish Superliga.
A few years later, Nashville is on its way to going 3-for-3 in playoff appearances and that gem, Hany Mukhtar, might be the best attacking player in MLS.
Can’t fault Nashville’s approach in the slightest.
Even as it represents the dichotomy of success in a league that remains a minnow in its sport – a concept foreign to other U.S. sports leagues. In MLS, either you’ve been trying to win or trying to build mass appeal and interest outside of die-hard soccer fans. It has been difficult to consistently do both.
Then comes Bale, joining an LAFC team already atop the Western Conference and saying things to warm MLS hearts.
“I definitely think the perception (of MLS) is changing (in Europe),” Bale says, “because I think a lot of players came over and really struggled and got a big wake-up call by it. I’ve spoken to other players about it. I know the quality is improving.”
We’ve heard that sort of thing before about soccer in America, so much that we really should know better than to be taken by mere talk of progress from this Welshman banging on a door in a locker room hallway.
But I keep going back to this: Bale might be a veteran player, but his game wasn’t yet too old for Europe. I sense that he chose MLS more out of preference than necessity.
Shouldn’t I view that as progress? Can I think that true respect for MLS only arrives when it can compete with top leagues to pay and lure top international stars – in their prime – to come here and not view it as settling into some retirement tour?
Perhaps it’s no longer a matter of what Bale – or David Beckham or whoever else – can do for Major League Soccer?
Maybe he’ll change the question: What can LAFC do for Bale?
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism