Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini made a winning start to life in Major League Soccer as LAFC beat Nashville 2-1 on the road on Sunday.
Fans have been awaiting the debuts of the two European stars ever since they arrived after ending glittering spells with Real Madrid and Juventus, respectively.
Bale was in attendance for LAFC’s 3-2 win over El Trafico rivals LA Galaxy a week previous, shortly after arriving in California. But on Sunday, he was finally able to make his debut, coming off the bench for the final 18 minutes as the Black and Gold won 2-1 in Nashville thanks to goals from Cristian Arango and Jose Cifuentes.
There are clearly some positional questions for head coach Steve Cherundolo to answer. Bale and Carlos Vela both prefer to operate in the same spot on the right flank, cutting onto their left foot. And neither are truly at their best when played further forward as a central striker.
But Bale was solid and tidy in his first runout. The Wales international enjoyed 100% success with his passing and ground duels, and even had time to pull off a fancy flick around Nashville defender Daniel Lovitz.
“The humidity was very difficult, even in the warmup,” Bale observed after the game. “It was something that I’m not used to. You don’t really get to see the heat on TV.”
The 33-year-old added: “I wouldn’t say [the style of play] is different, it’s just getting used to the team’s philosophies. We’re working on it in training every day. I’m watching extra film on it in terms of before and after training with the coaches. It’s just trying to get up to speed as quick as I can and when I go on the field, do as much as I can to help the team.”
While Bale was only fit enough for a short cameo, Chiellini was able to see out an hour at the heart of LAFC’s defense.
The veteran Italian’s numbers certainly stacked up, making four clearances, four recoveries, three tackles, and one block. Chiellini also won 100% of his ground duels, enjoyed an 87% pass completion rate, and created one chance.
“I mean, you can imagine after two months, the distance – you can train how many times you want, but the game is something different,” Chiellini reflected. “The rate, the distance, the contact, it’s everything different. And surely the first 15 minutes, I continue to say in my mind, ‘quiet, go easily, and then step by step, minute by minute, surely you’ll feel better,’ and this is what happened.
“I have the experience to understand this thing. And for me, it’s just a pre-season, but it’s not pre-season, because it’s very important now, these three points.”
While Chiellini himself believes he’s just feeling his way into Major League Soccer, he certainly left an impression on Cherundolo – himself a defender during his playing days with Hannover and the USMNT.
“Giorgio, we chose to start and see how long his legs would take him after a very short preseason, and to last for 60 minutes was great. It’s great for him, great for the group, very solid performance, much as what we suspected,” he said.
“A player of his caliber, he prides himself on not making mistakes, and he can get on the plane tonight and say he played a mistake-free game. He is a world-class defender and he is an amazing human being in the locker room. So we’re ecstatic to have him here and it was really important for us to get him and Gareth a win in their first game.”
Up next for LAFC is a trip to Sporting Kansas City on Saturday.