Arrivederci, Giorgio

Giorgio Chiellini reached two MLS Cup Finals in his two seasons with LAFC, but his impact on the club goes far beyond the pitch


It is somehow poetic that nine months after he scored the first goal in the first game of LAFC’s historically ambitious 2023 season—and as it turned out, the only goal of his MLS career—world football legend Giorgio Chiellini closed that same season by announcing his retirement from professional football at age 39.

Chiellini’s announcement on Tuesday ends a two-decade run of excellence that began in Italy’s Serie C1 season in 2000-01 and went on to include an Olympic bronze medal, multiple European championships, and deep UEFA Champions League runs. Unanimously considered one of the greatest center-backs of his generation, when the Livorno, Italy, native took the field in Columbus, Ohio, for Saturday’s MLS Cup Final he became the oldest non-goalkeeper to ever appear in an MLS title game. He was as pivotal in that match as he has been across LAFC’s last two seasons of competition, although his on-field influence – as profound as it’s been – may not be his greatest gift to the club he joined last summer. 

When LAFC right back Ryan Hollingshead was asked recently to summarize Chiellini’s impact, he replied: 

“We're gonna have to stay for two hours to have this conversation because this guy is just next level.

“I don't think I'm stretching by saying he’s my favorite player I've ever played with. The way that this guy loves the game, knows the game, interacts with every one of his teammates, and makes himself better and the team better with the way that he talks, the way that he organizes, the way that he is reading everything at all times ... 

“I think I've joked about this before, but this guy is coming up to me before the game and he's like, ‘Hey Ryan, did you see this, this, and this?’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, I saw that.’ … Then five minutes later he comes back and he's like, ‘OK, so Quiñones, he likes to do this, this, and this.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, we saw that, we saw that in video.’ … He's just analyzing everything at all times. I'm like, ‘OK, the game started Giorgio, are we good?’ 

“It's that sort of guy that when you have him as a foundation in your back line, you just— I go out with all the confidence in the world.”

Goalkeeper John McCarthy, who started 33 games for LAFC in all competitions in 2023, said back in June that Chiellini is “the best center-back I've ever played with, by far. His positioning, his knowledge, his personality. He's got everything that you want as a player and a pro. On and off the field he's great. So to have him [available] each week is nice. I hope he gets to stay healthy and gets in a good run of games because we need him.”

LAFC did need him. Having missed significant time with minor injuries during his first year in Los Angeles (2022), Chiellini started 17 regular-season games in 2023, and four of the club’s five playoff games. LAFC lost just six of those 21 matches. 

His ability to sense what was about to happen before it happened was invaluable, and his technical ability when challenging opposing attackers was not far off the level he showed when he dominated Serie A for 15 years.

But don’t take his teammates’ word for it. Consult the analytics. In the final season of his storied career, Chiellini led MLS in xG Plus/Minus/90 for much of the year, and ended up finishing second to a player with fewer starts and fewer minutes (Ali Ahmed of Vancouver). That stat has a longwinded definition that amounts to this: when Chiellini was on the field he helped LAFC create more scoring chances and allow fewer goal chances than any player in MLS.  

He finished fourth in the league in Plus/Minus/90, a simpler stat that tracks actual goals instead of chances. Twenty-six-year-old USMNT standout Miles Robinson of Atlanta was the only other center back in the top 30.

LAFC scored 32 regular-season goals when Chiellini was on the pitch, and conceded just 14, resulting in a Plus/Minus (+18) that ranked 17th among all MLS players. Best XI selection Tim Parker of STLCitySC (age 30) was the only other center-back among the top 17.

If Chiellini, already an Olympian, European champion, and nine-time Italian champion, had called it a career after his final year with Juventus (2021-22), no one would have begrudged him. It would have been fine if he’d joined LAFC as a figurehead tasked with offering locker-room guidance and coming on as a sub here and there. Chiellini chose something else. 

He was on the field for 45 percent of the total minutes LAFC played this season. He played more individual minutes—1,364—than he has since Juventus’ 2018-19 campaign. He went the full 90 minutes in 10 MLS regular-season matches. He went the distance in LAFC’s last three playoff games as well. 

An appraisal of the personal warmth he has shown to every member of the LAFC family—from Carlos Vela to the club’s assistant groundskeeper—would, as Hollingshead said, take two hours. And it might be his greatest contribution of all.

“When I arrived in the middle of July [2022] from the other part of the world, I didn't know almost anything of this city, of this club,” Chiellini said last month. “This year I think I realized much more what LAFC is, what MLS is … and I am appreciating a lot and much more also everything here.”

Some of the greatest praise Chiellini received came from his final opponent. Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy, himself a former defender, said during the buildup to Saturday’s match: “Maybe you’re going to laugh about what I am going to say, but this is a true story. They [Crew players] know Chiellini, because I showed my players how Chiellini was defending when he was with Juventus … So I have massive respect for this player—this person also because he won a lot of things but he always has a smile on his face. When I talk [about] my values, words [that] are really important for me are ‘compete’ and ‘joy.’ And Chiellini, he is exactly the characteristic of these two words. … 

“I love him, to be honest with you.”

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