TUKWILA — It’s not very often that the Supporters’ Shield leaders can add significant talent at midseason. It’s even more rare when those players can be legitimately called “world-class.” It’s basically unheard of when a team can add two such players without even having to use up a Designated Player spot.
Yet, that’s exactly what LAFC have done over the past week, adding Garth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini on Targeted Allocation Money contracts. Just for good measure they also signed Carlos Vela to an extension and beat the New York Red Bulls 2-0 on Sunday to push their lead in the Supporters’ Shield race to four points.
Even after going 5-1-1 in their past seven, the Sounders are 10 points behind LAFC in the Shield race. They’ve also given no indication that they are intending to make any additions remotely close.
None of that seems to be of too much concern to Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer.
“I think it’s great for the league,” Schemtzer said following Monday’s training session. “Let’s see how they get those attacking pieces and how they’ll defend.
“Of course, you’re taking a bet that Gareth Bale in his state of wanting to be fit for a World Cup … that’s a great signing. Chiellini, one of the greatest center backs ever, those are two great signings.”
Asked if he was more excited or worried about game-planning for LAFC, Schmetzer flashed a big smile.
“I’m excited to play against Gareth Bale,” he said.
Not that they need much introduction, but Bale and Chiellini are two of the most accomplished players to ever join MLS. They also come to the league at a time when they’ve struggled to stay healthy.
Of the two, Bale is closer to his prime at 32 and is coming off a season in which he won his fifth UEFA Champions League title with Real Madrid and was the driving force behind Wales ending a 56-year World Cup qualification drought. He was reportedly making about $35 million a year at Real Madrid after joining them on a roughly $100 million transfer fee in 2013. But he’s also dealt with quite a few injuries, only appeared in five La Liga matches this past season and hasn’t played in as many as half of his teams’ games since the 2018-19 campaign. The move to LAFC is apparently almost entirely about remaining sharp for the 2022 World Cup.
Chiellini, 37, spent most of his club career at Juventus where he made 561 appearances and was generally considered one of the top defenders in the world. He won nine Serie A titles, 10 other cups and played in two Champions League finals. He also has 117 Italy caps and helped lead them to the 2020 European championship and to the 2012 final. Like Bale, though, he’s also battled injuries for much of the past three seasons, playing less than 1,500 minutes in each of them.
Still, it’s a lot of talent to add to a team that was already looking like one of the best in MLS, especially when you consider they’ll both make less than the prorated portion of the $1.612M annual salary any non-DP is allowed to be paid.
Fresh off playing LAFC to a 1-1 tie a week ago, Schmetzer likened the challenge of their next meeting to the 2019 Western Conference playoffs. LAFC came into that game having set the MLS record for points in a season (72) while scoring the second-most goals (85) in MLS history. The Sounders won that game 3-1 behind some clever tactical adjustments by assistant Gonzalo Pineda and Djimi Traore on their way to capturing their second MLS Cup.
“I’m the kind of coach who doesn’t really change for other teams,” Schmetzer said. “We’ll scout them and figure out where they’re going to put their attacking pieces. It was the same thing with 2019 when they had that unbelievable year. Gonzo and Djimi came up with that pentagon shape and we found a solution. It was a tweak, we didn’t change our whole style of play. That will be the trick.”