LOS ANGELES – LAFC won their first MLS Cup title, defeating Philadelphia Union 3-0 on penalties after a thrilling final at Bank of California Stadium on Saturday finishing 3-3 after overtime.
Substitute goalkeeper John McCarthy, in only his second appearance for the club, was the LAFC champion, coming off the bench late in overtime and saving two penalties in a penalty shootout against his hometown club.
An unlikely champion secures the MLS Cup, the end of Hollywood
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Just minutes ago, Philadelphia looked to have won the title for the first time when Jack Elliott scored his second goal of the game from close range in injury time at the end of overtime. By then, LAFC had been reduced to 10 men after goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau’s red card minutes earlier.
But Welsh star Gareth Bale, who came off the bench in extra time, miraculously equalized for LAFC in the 128th minute with another goal in MLS history.
It came after a similar turbulent end to regulation time.
Jesus Murillo put LAFC ahead 2-1 with seven minutes remaining, but Philadelphia almost immediately equalized with Elliott’s first goal.
All four goals in regulation time came from set pieces, with Klein Acosta giving LAFC a 27th minute lead with a skewed free kick before Daniel Gazdag moved to Al Ittihad after a half-way corner kick.
The result means LAFC became the first team since Toronto FC in 2017 to win the Fan’s Shield, as the best team of the regular season, and the MLS Cup. Saturday was the first time since 2003 that the top seed in the Eastern and Western Conferences faced off in an MLS game.
Midfielder Eli Sanchez scored the winning penalty for LAFC in the penalty shootout after successful efforts by Dennis Bwanga and Ryan Hollingshead. Philadelphia failed to score from the penalty spot as McCarthy fired to deny Jose Martinez and Kai Wagner, and Gazdag slipped and sent his effort high over the bar.
“For the first 10 or 15 minutes, it was a Halloween movie,” Carlos Vela said of watching from the bench after replacing Bale in the 97th minute. “Then we end up with a Hollywood movie.”
Several hours ago, the game had just started with a little hint of the upcoming thrill ride.
There was more than an element of good fortune, though, regarding the opening match goal in the 28th minute.
Martinez, who always lives on the edge in the Philadelphia midfield, received a reckless foul 20 yards from the goal and was pushed when Acosta’s right foot ball veered off Jack McClean’s header into the union wall and goalkeeper’s left. Andre Blake was stranded when he found Grid’s corner.
The pace of the match increased almost immediately as LAFC felt an opportunity to extend their lead before the break. As he’s done so often this season, Blake pushed hard to keep Philadelphia alive, blocking from close range to block a Diego Palacios shot.
Finally, Philadelphia created an opportunity of its own in the 43rd minute, only to have a thrilling last-minute challenge from LAFC fourth-place center back Sebastian Ibiga—who plays in place of Giorgio Chiellini—to pry the ball off Mikel Ori as he strikes. down the target.
Despite entering the first half with a goal in a cauldron-like atmosphere on the road, the Federation did not deter him. Within 15 minutes of the second half, the match was level.
Once again the goal came from a free kick and again there was an element of good luck. Martinez was involved again, too. This time, his ambitious shot after a corner kick smashed in front of him over 35 yards went perfectly the way Gazdag, who turned expertly before winding up in the net.
The Hungary international’s 24th goal of the season brought parity and set up the final 30 minutes as LAFC supporters surged in volume once again to encourage their team to find a winner.
However, no one could have foreseen how dramatic the final ending would be.
The gentle action began in the 83rd minute. Murillo climbed high into the near post to flatter Blake from the Villa captain’s point in the swinging corner in front of the LAFC fan section as he erupted with the expectation of the trophy remaining in Los Angeles.
The joy will last less than two minutes. Another free kick and a more slack defense allowed Elliott to overpower Wagner’s free kick and beat Crepeau despite the LAFC goalkeeper getting a gauntlet.
Crepeau’s real place in the drama was yet to come. With 110 minutes on the clock, the Canadian international raced out of his box to try and stop Union striker Corey Burke from getting the end of a short pass back. But in doing so, he cost himself a red card after reviewing the video assistant referee, and suffered a serious injury to his leg that required several minutes of treatment and a cart to remove him from the stadium.
For Crepo, the injury will also likely mean the end of his World Cup hopes.
“I saw his face, we saw his feelings,” said McCarthy, who won the MLS Cup MVP award. “For me, that’s the way to play. If he slips and misses, it’s 3-2 and who knows how the match will turn out.
“He made a big decision to go out and do this play. I’m devastated for him, because it’s a serious injury and it looks like he’s going to miss the World Cup. You’re not going out of this match because of a band-aid.”
When Elliott put Etihad ahead for the first time in the 124th minute, there seemed to be no way back for the home team, even as the fans who made the Bank of California one of MLS’ best stadiums since the team entered the league. In 2018, they tried to cheer them up again.
With a star like Bale on the court, there’s always a chance.
The 33-year-old, who has played sparingly since joining from Real Madrid in the summer, more than justified the hype he made with his equalizing goal, combined with McCarthy’s saves, will live long in LAFC history.
“This place deserves it,” said first-year coach Steve Chirondolo, who engineered the massive turnaround by a team that missed out on last season last year. “These fans are amazing. They deserve the trophy and they got it.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.