THE ANGELS – LAFC won its first-ever MLS Cup title, beating the Philadelphia Union 3-0 on penalty kicks after a thrilling, roller-coaster final at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday finished 3-3 after extra time.
Substitute goalkeeper John McCarthyin just his second appearance for the club, was LAFC’s hero, coming off the bench late in extra time and saving two penalties in the shootout against his hometown club.
Only minutes earlier, Philadelphia looked 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 extra time. By that point, LAFC had been reduced to 10 men after a red card for goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau minutes earlier.
But Welsh star Gareth Balewho came off the bench in extra time, miraculously leveled for LAFC in the 128th minute with the latest goal in MLS history.
That followed a similarly breathless end to regulation time.
Jesus Murillo put LAFC 2-1 ahead with seven minutes left in regulation, but Philadelphia equalized almost immediately through Elliott’s first goal.
All four goals in regulation time came from set-pieces, with Kelly’s Acosta giving LAFC a 27th-minute lead through a deflected free kick before Daniel Rich pounced to level for the Union following a half-cleared corner.
The result means LAFC becomes the first team since Toronto FC in 2017 to win both the Supporters’ Shield, as the best regular-season team, and MLS Cup. Saturday was the first time since 2003 that the No. 1 seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences faced off in MLS’ showpiece matchup.
Midfielder Ilie Sanchez scored the winning penalty for LAFC in the shootout, following successful efforts by Denis Bouanga and Ryan Hollingshead. Philadelphia failed to find the net from the spot, with McCarthy diving to deny Jose Martinez and Kai Wagnerand Gazdag slipping and sending his effort high over the crossbar.
Several hours earlier, the game had started with little hint of the thrill ride that was to come.
There was more than an element of good fortune, though, about the game’s opening goal in the 28th minute.
Martinez, always living on the edge in the Philadelphia midfield, conceded a reckless foul just over 20 yards from goal and was made to pay when Acosta’s right-footed effort took a wicked deflection off the head of Jack McGlynn in the Union wall and left goalkeeper Andre Blake stranded as it found the corner of the net.
The tempo of the game increased almost immediately as LAFC sensed a chance to extend its lead before half-time. As he has done so often this season, Blake came up big to keep Philadelphia alive, blocking from point-blank range to deny Diego Palacios’ volley.
Philadelphia finally created a chance of its own in the 43rd minute, only for a sensational last-ditch challenge from LAFC’s fourth-choice center back Sebastien Ibeagha — playing in place of Giorgio Chiellini — to take the ball off Michael Uhre as he bore down on goal.
Despite going into the half-time interval a goal down in a cauldron-like atmosphere on the road, the Union were undeterred. Within 15 minutes of the second half, the game was level.
Again the goal came from a set-piece and again there was an element of good fortune. Martinez was involved again, too. This time his ambitious shot after a corner broke to him more than 35 yards out went 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 a nail-biting final 30 minutes as the LAFC supporters rose in volume once more to encourage their side to find a winner.
Still, nobody could have foreseen just how dramatic the finale would become.
The breathless action kick-started in the 83rd minute. Murillo rose highest at the near post to head emphatically past Blake from captain Carlos Vela’s pinpoint inswinging corner right in front of the LAFC supporters’ section as it erupted with the anticipation of the trophy staying in LA.
The joy would last less than two minutes. Another set-piece and more lax defending allowed Elliott to meet a free kick from Wagner and beat Crepeau despite the LAFC keeper getting a glove to it.
Crepeau’s true place in the drama was yet to come. With 110 minutes on the clock, the Canada international raced from his box to try to prevent Union striker Cory Burke getting on the end of a short back pass. But in doing so he both cost himself a red card, following a VAR review, and suffered a serious-looking leg injury that required several minutes of treatment and a cart to take him from the field.
Thus when Elliott put the Union ahead for the first time in the 124th minute there looked to be no way back for the host team, even as the supporters who have made the Banc of California one of MLS’ best venues since the team’s entry into the league in 2018 tried to encourage them once more.
With a superstar like Bale on the field, though, there is always a chance.
And the 33-year-old, who has played sparingly since joining from Real Madrid in the summer, more than justified his hype with an equalizing goal that, combined with McCarthy’s saves, will live long in LAFC history.