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'MLS not the best league for defenders' - Will LAFC's Chiellini gamble pay off?

13:00 BST 03/06/2022
Giorgio Chiellini Juventus LAFC crest GFX
The Italy icon will arrive in MLS on a TAM deal after leaving Juventus, but there are legitimate questions over the 37-year-old's adaptability

The abiding image of Giorgio Chiellini's last appearance for Juventus could not have been more fitting.

There he was with blood streaming from his head, a wounded warrior laying it all on the line one more time for the club he called home for nearly two decades.

It was a sight those present in Florence for Chiellini's final Serie A outing had seen many, many times before: the centre-back, head wrapped, pushing his teammates on, fighting, leading.

However, while the Italian has also subsequently brought the curtain down on his international career, he isn't retiring. On the contrary, he's now about to embark on a new adventure at club level.

As revealed by GOAL, he's trading in the black and white of Juventus for the black and gold of LAFC. He's swapping Serie A for MLS, the familiar surroundings of Turin for the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles.

That move, though, comes with questions, concerns, and intrigue. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but can a 37-year-old pitbull find a new lease of life in Hollywood?

Chiellini will arrive in MLS not as a Designated Player, but on a TAM deal, making him a relatively affordable signing for LAFC.

This is a European Championship winner, after all. He's also a nine-time Serie A champion, a five-time Serie A team of the Year selection, a three-time Serie A Defender of the Year.

You can go on and on, but those are the highlights. The point is: Chiellini is a legitimate icon of not just Juventus, but of Italian soccer.

However, if there's one thing we've learned from MLS' evolution in the last decade, it's that past glories do not always translate to success stateside.

MLS is, by all accounts, an absolute grind. It's a different life and a different challenge than life in Europe. And, at 37, Chiellini's ability to adapt is being rightly questioned.

It may sound tongue in cheek, like the infamous 'cold wet windy night in Stoke' argument, but there really isn't anything that prepares you for playing in Houston in the summer.

There aren't many challenges like playing on turf in Portland and Seattle. And there's nothing in Europe quite like a roadtrip that sees you play in Vancouver and Orlando on back-to-back weekends.

Stars have struggled to adapt to those challenges in the past. Steven Gerrard famously admitted that he wasn't prepared for what he faced in MLS.

"How can I put it?" Gerrard said during his time with the LA Galaxy. "When I turned up here, I didn't know there was humidity in Houston, didn’t know there was altitude in Salt Lake. I didn't know a lot about a league that was new and a bit of a shock to me at the time."

Chiellini's former teammates Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco, meanwhile, discussed the tactics, or lack thereof, in the league, although the style of play has taken a slight step forward since those two left the league.

"It's a beautiful kind of soccer," Pirlo said. "It's fast. Technical not so much yet, but maybe with the arrival of European coaches it will improve in that regard."

"The beauty of this league is there are fewer tactics," Giovinco added. "For supporters, it's good to go to games because there are lots of goals and nice play...

"For attackers it’s better because there are more chances to score. For a defender, it’s maybe not the best."

It's a far cry from Serie A defensively, which is exactly what makes this Chiellini signing so damn interesting. Despite injury issues, Chiellini showed he can still play at the top level over the last few years.

He remained a key piece of Juventus' team right until the very end and, let's be honest, no team in MLS is Juventus.

And, if Italy had defeated North Macedonia and booked their place in the World Cup, there's a pretty good chance this move never would have happened.

If that Qatar-sized carrot was still there, there's a pretty good chance that Chiellini would have seen out the final year of his contract with Juve.

But how Chiellini handles the above challenges will determine whether or not this move succeeds. How will Chiellini deal with the pace of MLS, which is famously more physical than Serie A?

How will he cope with the travel schedule, the weather, the playing surfaces? And, like any signing, how will he fit in with an LAFC team that always has legitimate MLS Cup hopes?

That fit is, at best, questionable.

The signing is one that is a significant departure from LAFC's usual way of doing business, with the club tending to focus on younger South American or MLS-based players rather than big-name stars.

Aside from Carlos Vela, the club has hardly targeted recognized names but has remained at the very top of MLS since its inception.

LAFC are also a club already at the top of the Western Conference with an established core of defenders.

Jesus David Murillo is a guaranteed starter, Mamadou Fall is a rising star, Eddie Segura are nearly healthy and veterans Doneil Henry and Sebastian Ibeagha are quality replacements. How many central defenders does a team need?

Is Chiellini really an upgrade on a partnership of Murillo and a healthy Segura? It may seem insane to ask, but it is a fair question.

For an LAFC team that likes to run and play on the counter, is it risky to have a 37-year-old covering ground in one-on-one situations in a league this fast?

LAFC is betting that Chiellini is an upgrade, that he can handle the league and all of its nuances. And, so far, the club has more often than not bet correctly when it comes to player signings.

This time, they're betting that Chiellini is the piece that can lead them to an MLS Cup. The money was right and, in their eyes, so was the fit.

They're betting on Chiellini to provide the defending, leadership and mentality to take this club to another level.

If he does, then there's a chance that he can lift one more trophy before he calls time on his illustrious career.

The lasting image of Chiellini at Juventus is already out there. But this is Chiellini's chance to create one last memory, to make one final statement, before he hangs up his boots, and his head bandages, for good.