Bale's magic touch is back! LAFC's MLS Cup hero remains a man for the big moment

Gareth Bale LAFC 2022Getty Images

In this generation, there are few players that have created memories quite like Gareth Bale. Yes, there are players that have scored more goals than him. There are players that have won more trophies, although not many. And there are certainly players more beloved than Bale, a player whose magic was seemingly tolerated, if not maligned, at Real Madrid.

What makes Bale's career so spectacular are the memories and the moments in which he made them. You shouldn't stack his numbers against others like you would, say, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. That's just not what Bale's career has been defined by.

Bale's career isn't necessarily about the macro, but the micro, the individual moments of brilliance that seem to pop up every year or two, even when it seemed like he had none left to provide.

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It's a career defined by the games, the performances, the goals and what they meant at the time. From the dazzling performance for Tottenham against Inter that announced him to the world, to the legendary Champions League final goals for Real Madrid, Bale has always been a player for the big stage.

That was the case on Saturday in the MLS Cup final as Bale once again delivered the unthinkable with a goal, and a moment, that shouldn't have been possible.

Let's set the stage. LAFC is in their first MLS Cup, down a man and a goal to the Philadelphia Union. Both sides were juggernauts in the regular season, with the Union boasting the best defense in MLS history. As the clock ticked on after Jack Elliott's 124th-minute goal, it seemed that the Union were going to escape LA with a much-deserved title.

But then there was Bale, a player that hadn't featured for his club in nearly two months. His first half-season in MLS had, largely, seen him take on a supporting role, having not yet appeared in the MLS playoffs at all until extra time in Saturday's finale.

But, in the 128th minute, Bale found his moment. As Diego Palacios' cross floated in, Bale lept over 6'6 defender Elliott to head home an improbable goal. Form and fitness meant that Bale had no business outleaping Elliott, but the moment called for it anyway.

The roar that followed was incredible. Just minutes away from losing an MLS Cup finale on their home field, Los Angeles erupted as Bale suddenly changed everything. He ran around his team-mates and darted for the corner flag as thousands around him lost their collective minds

LAFC was back in it, and, for the Union, there was no way back.

LAFC went on to win the shootout. Bale wasn't even needed. Eventual MVP goalkeeper John McCarthy, a hero as unlikely as Bale was likely, came off the bench after Maxime Crepeau's injury to win the shootout. Still, despite the incredible story of McCarthy, most won't remember the penalty kicks as much as the goal that got them there.

What a goal it was, vintage Bale. Pure athleticism and drive. It wasn't as fancy as his bicycle kick against Liverpool nor quite as impressive as his dazzling Copa del Rey final run against Barcelona, but it was one that fans of LAFC, and MLS, will never forget.

That's because this game was, as MLS Commissioner Don Garber put it, MLS at its best. It was a game that had everything: drama, controversy, near-misses, comebacks and close calls. It had a red card, a catastrophic injury and, most importantly, it had Bale, the star on top of it all to give this game the relevance it couldn't have had without him.

Bale MLS Cup LAFC 2022Getty

In the coming years, this game's place in history will be more clearly defined without the recency bias of it all. But you can guarantee Bale's moment will take its place among the best in MLS history, right up there with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's El Trafico debut, Wayne Rooney's miracle assist and David Beckham's arrival.

Six months into his LAFC tenure, Bale has already justified it all. He had been criticized by some for his lack of activity since joining this summer as both he and LAFC decided it was best to ease him in ahead of the World Cup. He'd scored just twice in the regular season, both world-class goals, but he had no role in the attack ahead of Carlos Vela, Chicho Arango and Denis Bouanga.

By and large, LAFC didn't need him this season. What they needed him for was this moment. As his team-mate Giorgio Chiellini so eloquently put it in a post-match video caught on the field, LAFC needed him for "one f*cking goal".

There will likely be more next season when Bale is fully integrated into the team. After the World Cup, his sole focus will be on LAFC and, ultimately, the club's push to defend the trophy that is now finally theirs.

It's not the most illustrious trophy in Bale's collection, obviously. He's won five Champions League titles, for goodness sake.

And it certainly wasn't the most memorable moment of his career, although for some it will be up there. You can take your pick of his best for club and country over the years.

But Saturday was a perfect example of what Bale is: a player that seemingly always provides the magic that makes the big games feel even bigger. Few have done it better.