MLS Cup: LAFC stuns Union in a wild final thanks to Gareth Bale and a storybook hero

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Los Angeles FC forward Gareth Bale (second from right) celebrates the equalizing goal against the Philadelphia Union during an overtime MLS Cup football game on Saturday, November 5, 2022 in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
A late equalizer by Gareth Bale saw the LAFC beat the Philadelphia Union in the 2022 MLS Cup on penalties. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Philadelphia Union and the LAFC played 36 games and 120 Saturday minutes to the most insane stalemate. They sparred for over two hours in a Major League Soccer dream final, trading goals, shots and everything in between. Philadelphia scored to the potential winner in the 124th minute. Gareth Bale equalized in the 128th minute. They went to penalties to determine the greatest MLS Cup in history. And as soon as the most unexpected of the heroes appeared there.

John McCarthy, a Philadelphia native who wandered the unseen lower tiers of American football, stepped off the bench. for LAFC beat your hometown and former club.

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Coming on as a substitute for a starting goaltender who was injured and sent off, McCarthy made two big saves in the shootout to win his first league title for the LAFC.

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Ilie Sanchez converted the decisive penalty, ran up to McCarthy and jumped into his arms. Teammates arrived seconds later and surrounded him.

Union, about 10 minutes ago, thought they won them the first MLS Cup after the end of extra time. Jack Elliott, drafted 77th overall in an almost irrelevant draft, pounced on a dropped ball from the box and made a mayhem. The Philadelphia players turned on him. The debris of the Los Angeles crowd rained down on them. Thousands of miles away, at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, Union fans were jumping for joy and preparing an all-night celebration.

But Bale, a former elite winger who had only played six minutes for LAFC since mid-September, came off the bench and went crazy three minutes later to equalize:

Those 120 minutes – no, 130 – ended up being some of the best the league has ever seen. Then McCarthy added to them and his own legend.

For almost a decade, he wandered around modest football clubs, fields and benches. He played at La Salle University, for the Ocean City Nor’Easters and for Reading United. He worked with the Rochester Rhinos. He finally got his shot in MLS in 2015 with his local club Union, where, ironically, he became something of a cult hero for his penalty kick heroics.

But he didn’t play much. He spent the better part of three years as a stand-in, third striker or on loan at Bethlehem Steel. He signed with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2019, then Inter Miami in 2020 and LAFC in 2022.

Until Saturday, he played in one match for the entire season.

He was perhaps the least likely of LAFC’s stellar replacements to see the Bank of California field with a championship on the line.

However, in the second half of extra time, starting goaltender Maksim Krepo flew out of his line and brought down Union forward Corey Burke. Crepo, as the last man, received a red card and is horribly injured anyway. They took him off the field. A momentary stop temporarily took the life of the noisy and ruthless crowd and stopped the dramatic game.

But he also did two other things. This created nine minutes of stoppage time, which Bale used to drive Los Angeles into a frenzy. And that introduced McCarthy to the world.

Andre Blake, MLS Goaltender of the Year and the reason the Union barely used McCarthy half a century ago, saved the LAFC’s first shootout attempt. But Daniel Gazdag, who had a chance to give Philadelphia an early lead, slipped and shot over the bar.

Denis Buanga put the LAFC ahead in the shootout. McCarthy then read the minds of José Martinez and Kai Wagner.

Ryan Hollingshead, who missed his chance in stoppage time after a 90-minute game, scored a goal to put the score up 2-0. And Elijah secured the victory. Ecstatic celebrations began.

Kellin Acosta opened the scoring for the LAFC early thanks to a lucky deflection:

But the Union never succumbed to the pressure naturally exerted by the star power and the stage and the constant singing around them.

They went to the break with a score of 1:0, but still confident.

Fourteen minutes after they got back on the pitch, thanks to a great first touch and a Gazdag finish, they drew:

Philadelphia grew up in the game from there. The rhythm was elusive, and this favored the losers.

LAFC took the lead again in the 83rd minute. Jesus Murillo rushed to the near post and nodded to the hosts, returning them to the lead:

But just a minute after the resumption of the game, Elliott equalized:

After 45 minutes, the longtime Union centre-back nearly won the Cup. But instead, it was his former teammate who did it – with some help from the Welsh star who was once the most expensive player in the world.

In the end, LAFC’s unprecedented depth won the day and the title. They lifted a trophy that they well deserved – although the Union would have deserved it too.

Philadelphia, the league’s second-highest earners, have proven they belong in the biggest MLS scene.

However, LAFC, with quality throughout their 11 opening matches and former Champions League stalwarts unable to even break into it, have proven they belong in this stage for months, if not years to come.


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