LOS ANGELES — LAFC won its first MLS Cup title, defeating the Philadelphia Union 3-0 on penalties after a thrilling 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 a shootout against his hometown club.
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Just minutes earlier, Philadelphia appeared to have won the trophy for the first time when Jack Elliott scored his second goal of the game from close range in stoppage time at the end of overtime. By that point, LAFC had been reduced to 10 men following a red card for goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau minutes earlier.
But Welsh 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.
That followed a similarly breathless end to regular 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 regulation time came from set pieces, with Kellyn Acosta giving LAFC the lead in the 27th minute with a deflected free kick before Daniel Gazdag equalized for the Union after a corner kick.
The result means LAFC becomes 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 exhibition matchup.
Midfielder Ilie Sanchez scored the winning penalty for LAFC in the shootout, after successful efforts from Denis Bouanga and Ryan Hollingshead. Philadelphia failed to find the net from the spot and McCarthy dived to keep out Jose Martinez and Kai Wagner before Gazdag slid in to send his effort high over the bar.
“For the first 10, 15 minutes it was a Halloween movie,” Carlos Vela said of watching from the bench after being replaced by Bale in the 97th minute. “And then we end up with a Hollywood movie.”
A few hours earlier, the game had begun with little hints of the thrill ride to come.
There was more than an element of luck, however, about the game’s opening goal in the 28th minute.
Martinez, who has always lived on the edge in Philadelphia’s midfield, called a reckless foul just over 20 yards from goal and was made to pay when Acosta viciously deflected Jack McGlynn’s header into the Union wall and left keeper with his right foot. Andre Blake ran aground as he found the corner of the net.
The tempo of the game picked up almost immediately when 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 close-range block 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 center back Sebastien Ibeagha — who was coming on for Giorgio Chiellini — to take the ball from Mikkel Uhre as he went. towards the goal.
Despite going into halftime with a goal in a cauldron-like atmosphere on the road, Union did not waver. In 15 minutes of the second half, the game was tied.
Again the goal came from a set piece and again there was an element of luck. And Martinez was involved again. This time his ambitious corner kick from more than 35 yards was perfectly into the path of Gazdago, who turned expertly before finishing high into the net.
The Hungary international restored parity with his 24th goal of the season to set up a nail-biting final 30 minutes as the LAFC fans rose once again to encourage their team to find a winner.
However, no one could have predicted how dramatic the final would be.
Breathless action started in the 83rd minute. Murillo rose highest at the near post and headed powerfully past Blake from captain Vela’s pinpoint ball on the corner just outside the LAFC fan section as he erupted with anticipation to keep the trophy in LA
The joy would last less than two minutes. Another set piece and weaker defending allowed Elliott to meet a Wagner free kick to beat Crepeau despite the LAFC goalkeeper getting a glove.
Crepeau’s real place in the drama was yet to come. With 110 minutes on the clock, the Canada international rushed from his box in an attempt to stop Union forward Cory Burke from completing a short pass. But that cost him a red card, after a VAR review, and suffered a leg injury that looked serious and required several minutes of treatment and a wheelchair to take him off the field.
For Crepeau, the injury probably means the end of his World Cup hopes.
“I saw his face and we saw his emotions,” said McCarthy, who won the MLS Cup MVP award. “For me it’s 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 by going out and playing that game. I’m desperate for him because it’s a serious injury and it looks like he’s going to miss the World Cup. You’re not going to come out of this game for a Band-Aid.”
When Elliott put the Union ahead for the first time in the 124th minute, it seemed like there was no way back for the home team, even as fans made the Banc of California one of MLS’ best venues since the team entered the league. In 2018, he tried to encourage them once again.
However, with a superstar like Bale on the pitch, there is always a chance.
And the 33-year-old, who has played sparingly since joining from Real Madrid this summer, more than justified his delight with an equalizer that, combined with McCarthy’s saves, will live long in LAFC history.
“This place deserves this,” said first-year coach Steve Cherundolo, who has turned around a team that missed the postseason last year. “These fans are amazing. They deserve the Cup and they got it.”
This report used information from the Associated Press.