LAFC’s win over Philadelphia Union comes in greatest MLS Cup final

Whatever the owners of LAFC thought possible when they started their franchise, whatever Carlos Vela had in mind when he became the team’s first player, they could have imagined the events unfolding at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday played, can not imagine.

Five years into its existence, LAFC won its first championship, defeating the Philadelphia Union in a penalty shootout in the largest of the 27 MLS Cup finals played to date.

“That,” Commissioner Don Garber said, “was Major League Soccer at its best.”

How else to describe a game where Gareth Bale, later signed by celebrities, came on as a late substitute and scored a goal for the 10-man LAFC that leveled the score at 3-3 in extra-time injury ?

What else could be said of a competition that saw LAFC goaltender Maxime Crepeau sent off, setting the stage for rarely used backup John McCarthy to emerge a hero with two saves on penalties against his former team, who gave him earned the game’s MVP award ?

“Just a rollercoaster ride,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo of the final, which saw both teams score in the dying minutes of regular time and overtime.

LAFC's Carlos Vela celebrates with his family after a win over the Philadelphia Union to win the MLS Cup on November 5, 2022.

LAFC’s Carlos Vela celebrates with his family the team’s triumph over Philadelphia to win the MLS Cup.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The drive stalled after midfielder Ilie Sánchez’s penalty was leapfrogged by the outstretched left hand of Union goalkeeper Andre Blake to secure a 3-0 penalty shootout win.

“It was like a Halloween movie,” Vela said, “and then we ended up with a Hollywood movie.”

In the final scene of this mixed-genre feature, Vela raised the Philip F. Anschutz trophy into the sky while confetti erupted from nearby cannons and fireworks went off in the background. At the north end of the stadium, the wild 3252 cheering section that disrupted the Union penalty takers was shrouded in black and yellow smoke.

While MLS waited to go mainstream, most in this city probably didn’t know what was happening at the southeast corner of Exposition Park, but finals like this were to change that in time. The #1 selling point for any league is their games.

“This game had a little bit of everything,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta.

LAFC were in the lead after a first half that didn’t offer many chances from either team, the 1-0 lead coming thanks to an Acosta free-kick in the 28th minute that was netted by Jack McGlynn, who was part of the Union Wall was deflected.

The Union’s first goal, scored in the 59th minute, was also a product of luck as a long-range shot from José Martinez found striker Daniel Gazdag behind the LAFC defensive line for an easy finish.

At this point, the game spiraled into madness and became something to rival the San Jose Earthquakes’ four-goal comeback against the Galaxy in the 2003 playoffs for the best singles game in league history.

Jesús Murillo headed a Vela corner kick in the 83rd minute to put LAFC 2-1 up, only for the defense to melt down like it was an October Andrew Friedman bullpen. Just two minutes after Murillo’s goal, LAFC Union defender Jack Elliott ran free into the box and positioned him to end a Kai Wagner free-kick.

When the score was 2-2, it went into overtime.

Sixteen minutes into overtime, LAFC was reduced to 10 men when Crepeau ventured out of the box to bring down Union striker Cory Burke, who was on a breakaway. Crepeau was red-carded but also suffered a leg injury that required him to be taken off the field in a cart.

“I’m absolutely devastated for him,” said McCarthy, who speculated that Crepeau would not be able to represent Canada at the World Cup in Qatar later this month.

McCarthy called Crepeau’s foul “the game of the game” and said the game could have gone differently if Burke had scored.

Regardless, the Union took the lead no less than in the fourth minute of added time when Elliott powered up a loose ball in the six-yard box.

Gareth Bale, third from left, scores the winning goal for LAFC against the Philadelphia Union on November 5, 2022.

Gareth Bale, third from left, reacts after scoring LAFC’s decisive goal in added time. Once the most expensive player in the world, he was mainly used as a substitute following his move to LAFC in June.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

But a few minutes before the final whistle, Diego Palacios reached the left end line, from where he crossed the ball into the middle of the penalty area. Bale headed in the winning goal as he overpowered Elliott and knocked him down.

Once the world’s most expensive player, 33-year-old Bale had mainly been used as a substitute following his move to LAFC in June. He entered this game in the seventh minute of extra time, replacing Vela.

Bale’s unexpected exploits set the stage for the most unlikely hero of them all in McCarthy, a 30-year-old journeyman from Philadelphia who had spent four previous seasons at Union. His career has included stints with minor league teams in Rochester, NY and Chester, Pennsylvania. McCarthy had only appeared in one MLS game for LAFC this season. Suddenly, he was called up in a shootout as the LAFC team.

Union first kicker Gazdag slipped on his approach and sailed the ball high over the net. McCarthy dove right to stop Martinez’s shot and left to stop Wagner’s.

LAFC fill-in goalie John McCarthy saves a penalty on November 5, 2022.

LAFC goalie John McCarthy dives to save a penalty. The rarely used backup emerged a hero with two saves in the shootout against his former team and earned the game’s MVP award.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Football gods have a weird way of working,” Union coach Jim Curtin said.

When McCarthy was presented with the game’s MVP trophy, he wiped his eyes with the bottom of his jersey.

“A dream come true,” McCarthy said. “It still doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up.”

The best games never do. LAFC’s win over Philadelphia Union comes in greatest MLS Cup final

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