2022 World Cup: USMNT can’t afford to overlook Gareth Bales and Wales

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For the United States and their hopes of success at the World Cup, now just 12 days away, there has been an enemy hiding in plain sight these past few months.

For the uninitiated, Wales’ Gareth Bale hasn’t looked like much of a threat since moving to America in June, essentially functioning as little more than a high-profile warm-up for Major League Soccer’s LAFC , playing rarely and speaking in public even more rarely.

The best description for him now? The player, more than any other, that the United States should fear, distrust and be prepared for when they face the Welsh side in their tournament opener in Qatar on November 21.

“After all these years, Bale can still do things that no other player on this pitch can do,” former Wales international Iwan Roberts told me over the phone. “No other player in this game will have as much potential power to influence the outcome.”

The difference in perception comes from a singular case of Bale doing what Bale does. One of the most explosive and hard-hitting players in world football over the past decade, he provided the critical intervention in Saturday’s MLS Cup final despite starting just two games for the club since switching from Real Madrid in last summer

Introduced as a substitute in extra time, he saved LAFC from imminent defeat with an equalizing goal, before substitute goalkeeper John McCarthy kept out the Philadelphia Union in a penalty shootout.

Jack Elliot and Gareth Bale score CLUTCH goals in extra time

Jack Elliot and Gareth Bale score CLUTCH goals in extra time

LAFC and Philadelphia Union led a penalty shootout, thanks to Jack Elliot’s touch in the 120th minute +4 and Gareth Bale’s huge header in the 120th minute +8 of the MLS Cup.

Bale’s strike was a perfectly placed header, and a reminder that not only does he have the most accomplished career CV of any player on the Welsh or North American sides, he also has a long tradition of appear with decisive goals, regardless of recent form. .

“That’s just Bale,” BBC Wales reporter Peter Shuttleworth, who has followed Bale’s career since he was playing for Wales’ youth teams, told me. “He’s the big-time guy. And because he’s done it so many times before, he changes the game, even when he’s not playing well.

“It hardly matters what tactical formation Wales use. The Americans, like all opponents, will have to spend much of their time worrying about where Bale is and what he is doing.”

Not properly considering Bale would carry a huge risk for U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter because there is a long list of telltale moments when he made teams pay.

Choose your option. The goal of Real Madrid’s victory against Barcelona in the Spanish King’s Cup, with a spectacular run on the sideline and a cut inside? Or a devastating kick against Liverpool in the Champions League final?

How about the Champions League goal against Atletico Madrid in extra time, not to mention his effort to help Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, that country’s first appearance at a major tournament since 1958?

Now 33 years old, and almost a decade removed from when Madrid made him the most expensive player in the world, Bale is not the same as he was. Mostly out of favor with Real in his last two seasons there, his main goal ahead of his retirement is to enjoy one last shout for the national team.

Now it’s tricky for opponents, because there are games these days when Bale doesn’t do anything special. However, for Berhalter, the thought must still be that the capacity for danger lurks at any moment. Bale’s ability for strength and speed and a long-range attack should not be controlled by just having a quiet word with centre-backs Cameron Carter-Vickers and Walker Zimmerman. Everyone needs to be aware of where Bale is hiding, with midfielders like Tyler Adams playing a particularly important tracking role.

The most important game of any World Cup, for any team, is the first one, because it sets the momentum for your entire campaign. History is heavily biased towards those who shine in their first games. In the last World Cup in 2018, 13 teams lost their first match. Of these, 12 did not qualify for the round of 16.

With England and Iran also in Group B, it’s not a far-fetched idea for the winner of the Wales/USA match to have an inside track to the last 16, while the loser will need an instant fix if they are to survive. his tournament.

Wales’ Gareth Bale: no. 42 | Stu Holden’s Top 50 Players

Wales' Gareth Bale: no.  42 |  Stu Holden's Top 50 Players

Welshman Gareth Bale is known for his technical ability, speed and finishing. He is ranked 42nd in Stu Holden’s list of the 50 best players for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup.

However, the Americans will face a very different opponent. The USA have a well-balanced squad, albeit led by a star of their own in Christian Pulisic. Wales, partly because of its small population, has often been very heavy. Bale and Aaron Ramsey have operated at their highest levels in the Champions League, but the likes of veteran Chris Gunter, from AFC Wimbledon in the fourth tier of British football, are also likely to be included.

“In a way, Bale is almost like the general manager of the Wales team,” Shuttleworth added. “He influences who gets drafted and how they play. He controls a lot of things, but the players are happy to follow him because they know he cares about the team and what he can do.

“You can see it when the team is together, the young players pay attention to everything Bale does.”

On the field on November 21, the Americans would be well advised to adopt the same approach.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX i subscribe to the daily newsletterr.

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