LOS ANGELES — LAFC clinched its first-ever MLS Cup title, beating the Philadelphia Union 3-0 on penalties after a thrilling rollercoaster final at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday 3-3 after extra time.
Substitute keeper John McCarthy, in 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 .
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Minutes earlier, Philadelphia seemed 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 then, LAFC had been reduced to 10 men after goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was shown a red card a few 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 last goal in MLS history.
That followed an equally breathless end to regulation time.
Jesus Murillo put LAFC ahead 2-1 with seven minutes left in regulation, but Philadelphia tied the game almost immediately thanks to Elliott’s first goal.
All four regular-time goals came from set pieces, with Kellyn Acosta giving LAFC a 27th-minute lead with a deflected free kick before Daniel Gazdag pounced level for Union after 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 top regular-season team, and the MLS Cup. Saturday was the first time since 2003 that the No. 1 seeds from the Eastern and Western Conferences faced each other in MLS’s showpiece game.
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 in place, with McCarthy diving to deny Jose Martinez and Kai Wagner, and Gazdag sliding and sending his effort over the crossbar.
Several hours earlier, the game had started with few hints of the thrill ride that was to come.
There was more than an element of good fortune, however, about the game’s first goal in the 28th minute.
Martinez, still living on the Philadelphia midfield line, conceded a reckless foul just over 20 yards from goal and was forced to pay when Acosta’s right-footed effort took a bad deflection from Jack McGlynn’s header into the Union wall and the left keeper. Andre Blake failed as he found the corner of the net.
The pace of the game picked up almost immediately as LAFC sensed a chance to extend their lead before halftime. As he has done so often this season, Blake managed to keep Philadelphia alive, blocking from close range to prevent Diego Palacios’ volley.
Philadelphia finally created its own chance in the 43rd minute, only for a sensational last-minute challenge from LAFC’s fourth-choice center back Sebastien Ibeagha – playing in place of Giorgio Chiellini – to take the ball from Mikkel Uhre as he wore down on purpose.
Despite going into half-time with a goal less in a cauldron atmosphere on the road, Union were undeterred. Less than 15 minutes after the second half, the game was tied.
Again the goal came from a set piece and again there was an element of good fortune. Martinez was also involved again. This time his ambitious shot from a broken corner from over 35 yards went perfectly into the path of Gazdag, who circled expertly before finishing high into the net.
The Hungarian international’s 24th goal of the season restored parity and set up a fierce final 30 minutes as LAFC supporters once again went up in volume to cheer their team to find a winner.
Still, no one could have foreseen how dramatic the finale would become.
The heart-pounding action started in the 83rd minute. Murillo rose tall at the near post to force past Blake from captain Carlos Vela’s corner just past the LAFC fan section as he burst with anticipation for the remaining trophy in Los Angeles.
The joy would last less than two minutes. Another set piece and a more lax defense allowed Elliott to meet a free kick from Wagner and beat Crepeau despite the LAFC keeper being given a glove.
Crépeau’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 and stop Union striker Cory Burke from getting a short back pass. But in doing so he both cost himself a red card, following a VAR review, and suffered a serious leg injury which required several minutes of treatment and a cart to take him off the pitch.
So when Elliott gave the Union the lead for the first time in the 124th minute, there seemed to be no turning back for the host team, even though the supporters who made the Banc of California one of the best venues in MLS since the team entered the league in 2018 tried to cheer them on once again.
With a superstar like Bale on the pitch, however, there’s always a chance.
And the 33-year-old, who has played sparingly since arriving from Real Madrid in the summer, more than justified his hype with an equalizer which, combined with McCarthy’s saves, will go down in LAFC history for a long time.
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