After scoring LAFC’s first goal of the season—and the only goal of his MLS career so far—Giorgio Chiellini has spent the last eight months keeping footballs out of his team’s net.
When the 39-year-old center-back takes the field in Columbus on Saturday, he will become the oldest non-goalkeeper to ever appear in an MLS Cup Final. He will also be a pivotal figure in the match—although his influence on it will not be as great as the effect he’s had on the Club he joined last summer.
When LAFC right back Ryan Hollingshead was asked following Saturday’s Western Conference Final win over Houston 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 and the team better with the way that he talks, the way that he organizes, the way that he reads 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 the 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 has needed him. Chiellini started 17 regular-season games in 2023, and three of its four playoff games to this point. LAFC lost just five of those 20 matches. His ability to sense what’s about to happen before it happens has been invaluable, and his technical ability when challenging opposing attackers is 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. 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. USMNT standout Miles Robinson of Atlanta was the only other center back in the top 30.
LAFC scored 32 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 was the only other center-back among the top 17.
If Chiellini, already an Olympic medalist, European champion, and nine-time Italian champion, had called it a career after his final year with Juventus, 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 two 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  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.
"And now we are a different team. We are ready to fight for our throne.”