Toward the end of September, it looked like LAFC was about to unlock the best of Gareth Bale. He hadn't scored in his last seven appearances (totaling 245 minutes) after finding the net twice in his first four (96 minutes), but more importantly, the 33-year-old Welshman had just recorded his second start.
"We're on a good path to where I want to be," Bale said on Sep. 21. "I want to play 90 minutes as much as I can, but I understand I need to build up to that because I haven't done it an awful lot in the last few years. The most important thing for me is to take each week as it comes and hopefully that will be good enough for me to help LAFC and, ultimately, be ready for the World Cup."
Then Bale recorded a grand total of five minutes throughout October. He didn't get off the bench on Decision Day and didn't dress in the playoff quarterfinals because of a reported leg injury. However, manager Steve Cherundolo said there was "no more injury to report" heading into the semifinals and Bale was named in the squad, but he again didn't get off the bench in LAFC's 3-0 win over Austin to reach MLS Cup. He now has as many trophies (Supporters' Shield, Western Conference) as goals (two) in MLS.
There are the ongoing fitness/injury concerns, but the elephant in the room is that LAFC just doesn't need the five-time Champions League winner at the moment. Bale's first MLS start was against Austin in the regular season on Aug. 27 and Los Verdes hammered LAFC 4-1.
The team's front three has become untouchable.
Denis Bouanga arrived from Saint-Étienne a month after Bale and he's claimed the left wing with some influential displays, including a brace against the Galaxy in the playoffs. The right wing is Carlos Vela's home and the 33-year-old creates chances as well as anyone in MLS while still scoring spectacular goals with his wand of a left foot.
We all thought we'd see more of Bale at center forward but 27-year-old Colombian Chicho Arango appeared in all 34 regular season matches, scoring 16 and creating four, before scoring the 90+3' winner against the Galaxy and opening the scoring against Austin.
Cherundolo is also clearly a fan of the energy 21-year-old Ghanaian forward Kwadwo Opoku brings off the bench, so when things went exactly according to plan against Austin, there was no reason to bring on Bale (or Cristian Tello, the 31-year-old who previously played for Barcelona, for that matter).
Will Bale start in MLS Cup? Absolutely not. Will he come off the bench? If things aren't going to plan against Philadelphia at Banc of California Stadium and LAFC is trailing with 30 minutes to go, then I'd guess we'll see Bale. But if LAFC is winning with 30 minutes to go, then we'll see the defense/midfield reinforced and we won't see Bale until he's lifting the trophy.
What does it mean for Wales?
After Saturday's final, Wales takes on the USMNT in just 16 days time. In his last appearance for the Dragons he went 90 minutes in the Nations League (Sep. 25), but his inability to do that in any other Group A4 matches coincided with Wales getting relegated with only one point.
While the numbers say that Bale's presence makes LAFC worse, Wales is built around its captain in the final third. Still, this is an entirely different build-up than anything Bale's experienced in his long career.
At the last European Championship, Bale entered the tournament after a season spent on loan at Tottenham. He missed a lot of time in the first half of that campaign but finished the season on a tear — starting four of Tottenham's final six EPL matches and scoring six goals.
But Bale has also shown an ability to deliver with Wales without any real preparation.
When he scored a sensational brace against Austria in the WCQ playoffs back in March to get Wales to Qatar, he was in the midst of never getting off the bench for Real Madrid. He'd only appeared in one of Real's previous 26 LaLiga matches (knee injury, back injury, muscle problems, COVID) but came out looking like 2013 Gareth Bale for 90 minutes.
Give him an opportunity like this while wearing the Cymru shirt and it doesn't matter if he hasn't played in a year and only has 10 minutes in his legs — he'll become a national hero every single time.
Remember when the U.S. shut Cristiano Ronaldo down for 90 minutes at the 2014 World Cup, but at 90+5' Ronnie curled in the perfect ball for Silvestre Varela to finish? That's Bale's left foot as well.
"He's alright. He's fine. I've had conversations with him and he's okay. He's fine," Wales manager Rob Page recently told Sky Sports. "He's at the age now where he has to manage his body. He's got that experience to help him understand his body and how to get him in the best place possible for us."
You get the feeling that MLS Cup is already an afterthought for Bale. He's basically the only footballer in the world who's ever retired from club ball to focus on his international career, and Bale's preseason ends Saturday.