LOS ANGELES — LAFC won its first MLS Cup title, defeating the Philadelphia Union 3-0 on penalties after a thrilling roller-coaster final at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday that ended 3-3 after overtime.
Substitute goalkeeper John McCarthy, in just his second appearance for the club, was LAFC’s hero, coming off the bench late in extra time to save two penalties in the process against his hometown club.
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Only minutes earlier, Philadelphia looked to have clinched the trophy for the first time when Jack Elliott scored his second goal of the game from close range late in overtime. By that point, LAFC had been reduced to 10 men following a red card for goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau minutes earlier.
But Wales star Gareth Bale, who came off the bench in extra time, miraculously equalized for LAFC in the 128th minute with the latest goal in MLS history.
This was followed by a similar end of breathless conditioning time.
Jesus Murillo gave LAFC a 2-1 lead with seven minutes left in regulation, but Philadelphia equalized almost immediately with Elliott’s first goal.
All four goals in normal time came from set-pieces, with Kellyn Acosta giving LAFC the lead in the 27th minute through a deflected free kick before Daniel Gazdag equalized for the Union following a half-corner.
The result means LAFC become the first team since Toronto FC in 2017 to win both the Supporters’ Shield, as the best team in the regular season, and the MLS Cup. Saturday marked the first time since 2003 that the No. 1 seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences faced off in an MLS matchup.
Midfielder Elie Sanchez scored the winning penalty for LAFC in the process, after successful efforts from Denis Buanga and Ryan Hollingsend. Philadelphia failed to find the net from the spot, with McCarthy diving to deny Jose Martinez and Kai Wagner and Gazdag sliding to send his effort high over the crossbar.
“The first 10, 15 minutes, it was a Halloween movie,” Carlos Vela said of watching from the bench after Bale was substituted in the 97th minute. “And then we end up with a Hollywood movie.”
Several hours earlier, the game had begun with little indication of the shocking path it was to take.
There was more than an element of good luck, though, to the game’s opening goal in the 28th minute.
Martinez, who has always lived on the edge in Philadelphia’s midfield, was recklessly fouled just over 20 yards from goal and was rewarded when Acosta’s right-footed effort took a poor deflection off Jack McGlynn’s head and into the wall. Union and left goalkeeper. Andre Blake was pinned as he found the corner of the net.
The tempo of the game picked up almost immediately as LAFC sensed an opportunity to extend their lead before halftime. As he has done so often this season, Blake came up big to keep Philadelphia alive, making a save from point-blank range to deny Diego Palacios’ volley.
Philadelphia finally created a chance of their own in the 43rd minute, only for a sensational last-ditch challenge from LAFC’s fourth-choice centre-back Sebastien Ibeagha — playing in place of Giorgio Chiellini — to strip the ball from Mikkel Uhre as he brought . down in the goal.
Despite going a goal down at half-time in a cauldron-like atmosphere on the road, Union were undaunted. Within 15 minutes of the second half, the game was tied.
Again the goal came from a set piece and again there was the element of good luck. Martinez was involved again. This time his ambitious shot from a corner that broke over 35 yards was perfectly into the path of Gazdag, who turned expertly before finishing high into the net.
The Hungary international’s 24th goal of the season restored parity and set up an impressive final 30 minutes as LAFC fans turned up the volume once again to encourage their team to find the winner.
However, no one could have predicted how dramatic the finale would become.
The breathless action began in the 83rd minute. Murillo rose high at the near post to emphatically slot past Blake from captain Vela’s spot into the swinging corner just in front of the LAFC fan section as he erupted in anticipation of the trophy staying in LA
The joy would last less than two minutes. Another set piece and looser defending allowed Elliott to meet a Wagner foul and beat Crepo, despite the LAFC keeper getting a glove.
Crepeau’s real place in the drama was yet to come. With 110 minutes on the clock, the Canada international raced out of his box to try and deny Union forward Corey Burke on a short back pass. But in doing so he cost himself a red card, following a VAR review, and suffered a serious leg injury that required several minutes of treatment and a basket to take him off the pitch.
For Crepeau, the injury likely also means the end of his World Cup hopes.
“I saw his face and we saw his emotion,” said McCarthy, who won the MLS Cup MVP award. “For me, this is the game of the game. If he slips and misses, then it’s 3-2 and who knows how the game will end.
“He made a big decision to come out and play that game. I’m devastated for him because it’s a serious injury and it looks like he’s going to miss the World Cup. You don’t come out of that game for a Band-Aid.”
When Elliott put the Union ahead for the first time in the 124th minute, it looked like there was no way back for the home side, despite the fans who have made the Banc of California one of the best venues in MLS since the team entered the league in 2018 he tried to encourage them once again.
With a superstar like Bale on the pitch, though, there’s always a chance.
And the 33-year-old, who has played sparingly since joining from Real Madrid in the summer, lived up to his hype with an equalizer that, coupled with McCarthy’s saves, will live long in LAFC history.
“This place deserves this,” said first-year coach Steve Cherundolo, who engineered a huge turnaround from a team that missed the postseason last year. “These fans are amazing. They deserve a Cup and they got it.”
This report used information from the Associated Press.