Los Angeles Football Club's two newest players made their debuts in the Club’s 2-1 road win against Nashville SC on July 17, and while picking up three points on the road against a top club in the Western Conference is always cause for celebration, the victory was made extra special by Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and Welsh attacker Gareth Bale experiencing their first minutes in Black & Gold.
Chiellini made his first start in the middle of the backline and played 60 strong minutes in his club debut, while Bale entered the match in the 72nd minute, replacing Cristian Arango and immediately showed the class he can bring to the attack.
"Giorgio we chose to start and to see how far his legs would take him after a very short preseason,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said. “To last for 60 minutes was great for him and great for the group. Very solid performance, as we expected. A player of his caliber prides himself in not making mistakes. He can get on the plane and say he played a mistake free game. He is a world class defender and an amazing human being, so we're excited to have him here.”
Throughout his debut, Chiellini ran would-be attackers off the ball and seeing the play back to goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau. In the middle of the first half, after Arango's goal, Chiellini neutralized a dangerous Nashville scoring opportunity inside the penalty box, the highlight of a strong defensive showing that saw him fighting for positioning with former LAFC defender and current Nashville SC All Star Walker Zimmerman. After the match, Chiellini spoke about his first steps in a Major League Soccer match and how important his teammates were in helping him settle into the flow of the game.
"You can imagine, after two months, you can train as much as you want, but [playing in] the game is something different. The distance, the heat, the contact, it's all different,” Chiellini said. “Surely, the first 15 minutes, I said in my mind, ‘Quiet, go easily and step by step, minute by minute, surely you'll feel better.' That is what happened, but of course I have the experience to understand this. This is preseason [for me], but it's not the preseason [for the club]. My teammates helped me a lot, and surely, I needed the help. I am very happy about this win. The whole team is."
Bale watched the first half from the bench in great anticipation of his debut, raring to join Chiellini in taking his first steps for the club. When Cherundolo called his number, Bale was ready. The former Real Madrid player subbed in for Arango in the 72nd minute and immediately showed why LAFC is so excited to have him on the team.
"Gareth was excellent [as well]. Every touch was great. His quality on the ball is incredible. He's also big and physical and can run. With only a few training sessions under his belt, to get 20 minutes from him was great as well."
Bale's first two touches on the ball were both world class. The ball was headed to him for the center pitch line, and he was able to take the ball onto his outstretched left foot and redirect the ball forward, he then moved in space without the ball and when it was passed to him with his back to goal, he thoughtlessly executed a back pass that Jose Cifuentes was able to latch onto and advance into the right corner of the final third.
Bale was even back in defense late in the match to help clear away Nashville's final attempts at an equalizing goal. He may not have found the back of the net himself in his first 20 minutes, but Bale's quality on the ball was on full display in his limited debut, and LAFC is hoping there is plenty where that came from.
"It felt amazing, I was itching [to play] from the first half. As soon as I sat down on the bench, I was trying to get off and help the team, to play some minutes,” Bale said. “It was important obviously for me individually that I get my fitness going; it's the end of the season in Europe. [It was] good to get some minutes. It was an important time to come into the game; it wasn't one of those [situations] where you have to go and score goals, we had to try and keep the ball, run the clock down in a way and try to be sensible.”
Bale's connection with Vela and the rest of the attackers is a work in progress that grows with every practice; the same can be said of Chellini's rapport with Crépeau and the rest of the backline.
LAFC returned to the top of the Western Conference and Supporters Shield standings with the victory, and with 14 more games to play in the regular season, there is the increasing feeling around the Club that this is the beginning of something special – and it continued with a big win in Nashville.
“We kept the ball well, made it difficult and got the three points,” Bale said. “Which is the most important thing in football."