Football

Have LAFC cured growing pains from signings of Bale & Co.?

Have LAFC cured growing pains from signings of Bale & Co.?
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When LAFC announced the signing of center-back Giorgio Chiellini on June 13, they did so from their perch atop the Supporters’ Shield standings.

At the time, with about 41% of the regular season complete, adding the Juventus and Italy legend represented a statement of intent: There would be no complacency in Los Angeles. And it was only the start.

In the next three months, LAFC general manager John Thorrington engineered one of the most ambitious transfer windows in league history. Wales captain Gareth Bale signed a Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) contract after leaving Real Madrid a couple of weeks later. Winger Denis Bouanga inked a Designated Player (DP) deal Aug. 5, as did Cristian Tello later in the month — after Brian Rodriguez moved to Club America — arriving from Saint-Etienne (France) and Real Betis (Spain), respectively.

The upside was obvious. Adding that type of attacking talent gave LAFC unprecedented depth with players they felt fit first-year coach Steve Cherundolo’s system. But there was the other side to consider, too. Simply, why mess with a good thing?

« You certainly have to take that into consideration, » Thorrington said. « You have to take all the variables into account. Adding this player, moving that player, what impact that has within the group. »

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By the time Chiellini played in his first game — the first of the midyear signings to feature — Los Angeles was one game past the midway point of the season. LAFC sat on 36 points through 18 games and held a two-point lead over Austin FC in the Shield and Western Conference races. There was a sense around MLS that by adding Bale and Chiellini, LAFC had the potential to run away with the league and chase the single-season points record the New England Revolution set last season (breaking LAFC’s mark from 2019).

At first, it looked like that might happen. Bale scored twice from the bench in his first four appearances and LAFC won seven straight — outscoring opponents 19-5 in the process. They were on record pace. But it didn’t last.

After taking just three points from a five-match stretch, the points record pursuit fell out of focus and by the start of September, LAFC were locked in a tight race with the Philadelphia Union, who had morphed into the league’s dominant team.

« Obviously, people are looking at it in a negative way, talking about our drop-off, this, that and the other, » midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. « I think that’s just how MLS seasons go. It’s hard to maintain a high level all throughout the season, although we do want to. But sometimes that’s just not how it goes. »

Added Thorrington: « I think it was more coincidental than causal, but I can understand why people maybe connected those dots. »

The idea that there was some kind of letdown despite the fact that LAFC hung on to win the Supporters’ Shield — finishing one win shy of the single-season league win record — illustrates just how high expectations were. What Acosta and Thorrington both made clear was that while the pace slowed late in the season — once the roster had been settled — they don’t think that’s a reflection of any sort of disruption caused by the moving pieces.

« When you get new players, it’s a learning curve. You get to learn each other’s tendencies, » Acosta said. « You develop new relationships and I think when they came in the team, they were super eager. They gave us a different dimension that we lacked. I think they’ve been tremendous.

« They’re guys that have had a lot of experience, veteran leadership. They’ve come here ready to put their imprint on the team and help out the team. I’ve seen that in trainings. I’ve seen that in the locker room kind of in every aspect. »

In the Western Conference semifinal last week against rival LA Galaxy, Bouanga’s talent was on full display. He was slipped in for LAFC’s opening goal, made a smart back-post run to score his second and helped create the game-winner in stoppage time when he volleyed Acosta’s corner kick on frame that led to Cristian Arango’s goal. The third, in particular, goes down as an iconic moment at a stadium that has few peers in the league in terms of the type of enthusiastic atmosphere is can foster.

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« I’m sure everyone could feel it even through the TV, » Acosta said. « I mean, it was electric, it was nonstop. There was goals, there was chippiness, there was kind of a bit of everything you could ask for in a playoff match. And we definitely felt it.

« It was probably one of the most fiery and live, exciting, enjoyable games I’ve been a part of. Because it was just a bit of craziness all around. »

The win puts LAFC one win away from reaching the MLS Cup final for the first time. They will host Austin FC in the Western Conference final on Sunday at 3 pm ET (stream live on ABC). Austin took both meetings between the clubs during the regular season, including a 4-1 game that featured Bale in the starting lineup for the first time on Aug. 26.

Since then, Bale has started just one other time — a 1-1 draw with Minnesota United FC on Sept. 13 — and was not available against the Galaxy because of injury.

« We looked at Gareth as a player who we thought we could get up to speed and healthy and contributing — and I do want to highlight that he did. He helped win us a number of games when he could come in and play, » Thorrington said. « It’s just been unfortunate that he had a couple of hiccups physically that have precluded him from playing a larger role that we hope will now shift and now he’ll be able to help us. He works incredibly hard, he is a top professional and when he is healthy and able to contribute, we’ve seen what he can do in this league and we’re hopeful that that will continue. »

For Acosta, Bale’s arrival brought a unique opportunity for playful World Cup banter. Their respective national teams — the United States and Wales — will begin their tournaments in Qatar against each other next month.

« I always joke with him, like, ‘OK, as we start getting closer to the World Cup, that’s when I’m going to start kicking you here at training. I’m going to start making you feel some aches and pains so when you go into the World Cup, you’re feeling a little bit sore, » Acosta said, laughing. « But no, it’s all jokes. I always use the term ‘frenemies.’ We’re obviously friends and teammates here, but come World Cup time, it’s going to be a different beast… if I’m selected. »

Acosta was careful not to treat his selection as a foregone conclusion, but that’s pretty much the case. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which a healthy Acosta isn’t among coach Gregg Berhalter’s 26-man squad, for which he’s carved out a role as a reliable sub and the primary backup to Tyler Adams as a defensive midfielder.

That reality isn’t something Acosta is taking for granted, especially after his national team involvement was looking bleak shortly after Berhalter took over.

« I was at a point in my career where I thought I was really done with the national team. I was never going to get a shot back and that they kind of overlooked me and I thought it was kind of just it, » he said . « I worked my way back into the fold. I played quite a few games last year and am just building upon that. As a player, everyone’s dream is to play in a World Cup. Before it seemed like a long shot, but now it’s almost like a countdown. »

On Tuesday, US Soccer announced that nine MLS-based players « in contention » for the World Cup roster were congregating in Frisco, Texas, to stay fit ahead of the Nov. 21 opener. Acosta is in no rush to join them. If LAFC win on Sunday, they would host MLS Cup on Nov. 5, and that remains the priority.

« My plan is to do all that I can not to be in [Frisco], » Acosta said. « My plan is being here and playing on Nov. 5. »

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