LAFC's moves cast the shadow of the dreaded elephants graveyard

Total bafflement. That pretty much sums up my response to LAFC’s recent activities in the transfer market.

Signing the Italian stalwart Giorgio Chiellini. He’s (gulp) 37-years-old, and a defender. What ever can be the attraction here? None that I can see.

Seems that my bafflement was shared by the man himself. Chiellini had the audacity to pose the key question at his introductory press conference: “When I start to see the team, I said, they have fantastic defenders. Why’d they call me?”

There’s yet more bafflement emanating from LAFC. Why on earth, when they have the highest-scoring offense in MLS, when, with an exciting blend of young attacking players, they are playing so well, so attractively, do they need to sign Gareth Bale?

The possibility of a huge, hitherto undiscovered, colony of Welsh soccer fans living in LA seems not likely. So why Bale? As a goalscorer? Cristian Arango, currently has that role — along with a record of bagging 21 goals in 37 games for LAFC (including a real beauty for the winning score against the Galaxy on Friday night). Which ain’t bad. He also was the winner of the 2021 MLS Newcomer of the Year award. Then there’s Jose Cifuentes, who scored twice against the Galaxy, two headers, one powered in, the other a superb deflection, taken at full speed, of a Carlos Vela cross.

Anyway, should Bale play this season his No. 1 priority will surely be avoiding an injury that would jeopardize his chance for World Cup glory in Qatar. And some poor blighter is going to get benched to make way for him.

My bafflement has now been replaced by irritation. At the most basic level of analysis — “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” — these moves by LAFC defy any sort of logic. Seeking that logic, I made the early mistake of listening to a TV interview given by LAFC GM John Thorrington. Breezy, bouncy and bubbly, Thorrington had nothing convincing to say about the signings. At one point, when he happened to be talking about himself, he did let slip that “I like to win.” Well, yes, I suppose he does. Now that I come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a GM claim that he likes to lose.

From bafflement to irritation to hostility. Signing players in their career twilight smacks of elephant-graveyardism — a supposed crime that has bedeviled soccer in this country for decades.

In the early days of the old North American Soccer League there was plenty of justification for the accusation. Less so with MLS, which has managed to steer clear of the graveyard label. The growing number of skilled young American players has of course been a big help. But the league has finally realized (it has only taken them 20 years to work this out) that there are skilled young  imports to be found -- indeed it has lately been praised for signing promising youngsters, mostly from South America.

Whatever may be Thorrington’s aims — and apart from the moth-eaten “wanting to win” slogan they remain obscure — what comes over here is the inescapable trumpeting of elephants and the dreariness of the graveyard.

For MLS, what LAFC is doing looks like a step backward. The signings carry not only the vision of dying elephants, but also the stain of celebrity hunting. There was quite a lot of that back in the NASL days. None of the names really helped the league — not until GM Clive Toye (I’m pretty sure he liked winning) lured the great Pele to the Cosmos.

Talking of the Cosmos reminds me — I’m hedging my bets somewhat here. Particularly over Chiellini. In 1977, the New York Cosmos signed Carlos Alberto. A defender, 33 years old. His moment of glory had come seven years earlier, when he scored the final goal in Brazil’s 4-1 triumph over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. And what a moment! Surely the most exuberantly exciting goal of all the finals.

But seven years had passed ... and I didn’t think much of that signing either. More trumpeting in the gloom? Oh no — instead we got what bordered on a soccer miracle. Carlos Alberto, displaying his own version of the sweeper role, played defense with a skill and an artistry and a beauty that is really beyond any telling of it. And he went on casting some sort of mysterious spell over his opponents for another five years. Never before had I seen anything like this, and never do I expect to see its like again.

But we’ve all learned that “never” doesn’t belong in anyone’s soccer vocabulary. I was utterly wrong about Carlos Alberto 45 years ago. Maybe I’m wrong about Giorgio Chiellini today. Maybe Chiellini has a secret sweeper in his soul, bursting to break free. I think not, of course.

12 comments about "LAFC's moves cast the shadow of the dreaded elephants graveyard".
  1. Bob Ashpole, July 9, 2022 at 1:37 p.m.

    Seems like the decisions of a fan rather than a soccer person.

  2. Ben Myers, July 9, 2022 at 2:45 p.m.

    Contrary to the article, I see this as same old MLS, attracting one-time stars in their twilight years, starting with Valderama.  And let's not forget the splash Beckham made, except on the actual field of play.

    Chiellini sure was superb in Euro 2020, but he played less for Juve this past year.  If LAFC sticks him on the back line, we'll see how much he has left in his tank.  He can also mentor their younger defenders.

    Bale?  I dunno who else would take the mercurial Bale, so for him, this was a move of desperation to get playing time before playing for Wales in Qatar.

    The only real rationale for Chiellini and Bale is to put more fannys in seats.  If I knew Chiellini would be starting against the Revs in Foxboro, I would buy a ticket to see him play. Otherwise, the quality of play in MLS is not worth watching.  Bale?  meh!

  3. Wayne Norris replied, July 10, 2022 at 3:43 p.m.

    Late dig on MLS ....... 

  4. cony konstin, July 9, 2022 at 2:56 p.m.

    Give USONIANS an opportunity not players who are foreign 2nd, third tier or especially old washed up players. 

  5. Stan Meihaus, July 9, 2022 at 5:03 p.m.

    I would really hate to see the MLS go back to the bad old days of becoming a retirement ground for washed-up Europeans. I agree with the writer here--skilled young Americans and skilled young imports are the way ahead. If MLS becomes a feeder league to the bigger Euro teams, so be it. On that path pro soccer in this country becomes relevant and eventually competitive. If we go back to Pele in his late 30s and Chielleni and Bale, we take the road to irrelevance.

  6. Ben Myers replied, July 10, 2022 at 1:11 p.m.

    I would claim that MLS has not gone back to the old days of employing marquee players past their prime.  Why?  The old days have coninued without a break since the inception of MLS.

  7. beautiful game, July 9, 2022 at 7 p.m.

    I agree with Paul's assessment that the destabilization of the team is far greater with Chiellini and Bale's acquisition. 

  8. Wayne Norris, July 10, 2022 at 3:49 p.m.

    MLS has clearly made a shift to attracting younger players which has 100% improved the quality of play.

    A handful of older stars is fine although I find myself (maybe for first time) agreeing at least somewhat with PG.

    How does Chiellini fit? Who sits? I believe he is here for right reasons but seems like odd fit..

    Bale on other hand is a low risk (TAM) still in his "tail end" prime who is highly motivated at least until end of this year. If it does not work out sit him and move on.

    Do not however get rid of Arango or Paul Gardner will be 100% correct!

  9. Juan Ruiz, July 10, 2022 at 6:46 p.m.

    Oh, get over it Paul Gardner! It's great to see how these two players hold up in MLS. If that go crazy and dominate, that will tell people something, if they don't then that will tell us another. MLS can chew gum and walk backwards. These signings definitely sell papers, uh, I mean bring clicks to MLS websites, and they will draw more international eyes. But what else can LAFC do? Maybe bring some young talent, but with those TAM deals (how the heck did they do it!) I don't know if you can get potential bang for your buck that these two guys bring. Personally, it's not bad for the money involved. 

  10. humble 1 replied, July 12, 2022 at 11:54 a.m.

    100% agreed.  This is professional sport, entertainment.  Marquee names in Hollywood?  How ever heard of that.  Carry on!

  11. Kent James, July 13, 2022 at 2:48 p.m.

    While I agree with the main thrust of this column (bringing old big names into a team that is already successful is not a wise move), I don't think older players should automatically be dismissed, it depends on the player (and their attitude).  If they have the respect of their teammates, they can be a positive force in the locker room (helping the younger players play smarter, pick them up when they're down, cool them off when they get overheated, etc.).  On the other hand, if they disrespect their teammates (or the team, league, etc.), they can certainly hurt the team.  I think Lothar Mattheus (I player I really liked when he played for Inter and Germany), really went down in my estimation when he came to the MLS and clearly made little effort.  I hope we're beyond that sort of scenario.    If I recall, Zlatan Ibrahimovic still had some good soccer in him when he came to MLS, and there are others. So yes, a risky move, probably good for generating publicity, we'll see how it affects the soccer.

  12. Greedy Striker, July 30, 2022 at 9:14 a.m.

    Enough with the older player digs! Bale was a no-brainer once the salary situation was sorted. He is not over the hill. If anything his time at Madrid has left more gas in the tank after not playing much. The main reason most in Europe's top 4-5 leagues were turned off by hhim  was simply his enormous wages. Toronto is a good example of how far mls has come. They are signing Insigne and others to competitive contracts in career form.

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