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'Johnny came up big today': LAFC beat Philadelphia Union in dramatic penalty shootout for MLS Cup

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

It was an afternoon of heroic-laden performances from two undeniably driven teams. A shocked Stu Holden exclaimed, "I don't think it's even debatable, this is the best game I've ever seen in this league." The neck-and-neck battle for the MLS Cup on Saturday, Nov. 5, included six goals, five different scorers, and three different lead changes, in a match with a plethora of record-making moments. One of those was set by former Real Madrid legend Gareth Bale, who scored the latest goal in MLS history at the 128th minute for LAFC, sending the two no. 1 teams to a penalty shootout.

"It's always nice to score in finals, and I seem to have a knack for doing that. It's big. It's important for the club," said Bale post-match.

Bale had been nursing an injury for the past several weeks, and was planning to come on for the last 20 to 30 minutes only if needed. "It's been difficult mentally, and I'm sure it has been for a lot of players leading, going into the World Cup. For sure it's been in the back of my mind trying to make sure I'm 100 percent fit," he said.

In the first half, LAFC initially struggled against the Union's dogged high press, and were unable to connect long balls past the towering backline of Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott. They finally broke through in the 28th minute off a set piece from USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta.

LAFC have converted more set pieces this season than years before, but most notably the goal demonstrates an increased sharing of responsibility amongst different members of the team. LAFC captain Carlos Vela has been the main provider in the past and most viewers likely expected him to take the close-range kick himself. Instead, he did a fake run up and afforded his teammate the opportunity.

"It's not about the 11 that start. It's a really good team. Anybody can come and make the difference," said Vela in the press conference. "Other years, maybe I feel like if I'm not good, the team is not that good. This year was like I would do my best for 60 minutes, 90 minutes and the guys coming maybe can do better than me. I think it was that different between other years and this one, and we got the reward."

The Union, a team known for their grit and persistence, equalized in the 59th minute when an unmarked Dániel Gazdag turned a mishit shot from José Martínez and slammed it past Maxime Crépeau.

LAFC centerback Jesus Murillo would make up for the defensive blunder by scoring a powerful header in the 83rd minute off a Vela corner kick, and giving the home team a 2-1 lead in what felt like the end of the match. But the Union are accustomed to fighting back from a deficit, and responded just two minutes later, finishing a set piece header from a centerback of their own and sending both teams to 30 minutes of extra time.

As the California sun grew warmer at the Banc, the first leg of extra time came and went without a goal, but with one notable substitution: Gareth Bale for Vela. In the second leg, LAFC keeper Maxime Crépeau was forced into a dangerous 1v1 with Philadelphia attacker Corey Burke after receiving a poor pass back from Murillo. The ensuing clash injured both players and Crépeau was shown a red card for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity. As he was carted off by medical staff, the Canadian international could be seen spurring his teammates on to "Get it! Get it!". Crépeau later underwent surgery for a leg fracture.

Enter backup keeper John McCarthy in only his second appearance for the Black & Gold to finish out the last 9 minutes of the most important match in club history. Keeping in line with the dramatic narrative, McCarthy is also a Philadelphia native and former Union player of four seasons.

After some thrilling back and forth, the Union were rapid firing at LAFC, where Bale defended the box like a battalion commander in the heat of war. At 124 minutes, however, Union pressure proved too much, as Kai Wagner crossed a dangerous ball into the 18 that bounced around and eventually found Elliott in front of an open net, making it 3-2 for the visitors. Philadelphia fans and staff could rightly assume this was the goal to clinch the trophy. MLS Coach of the Year Jim Curtin shouted "four more minutes!" to his team as he paced the sidelines.

Elliott is the first-ever defender to score two goals in an MLS Cup, and would assuredly be crowned MVP had a certain Welsh superstar not tied up the game with just two minutes left on the clock.

After Bale's towering finish off a Chiqui Palacios cross (and one last nerve-wrecking Philadelphia corner) the match went to penalties. The coin toss put the PKs in front of the North End, where players would face the colossal 3252 supporters' section.

LAFC newcomer Cristian Tello was first to kick but was handily denied by three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake. Blake has been a game changer for the Union, but it would be his former teammate and once third-string keeper who would make national headlines the next day. After a rare miss from Gazdag (he has made all 8 penalties for the Union), McCarthy guessed correctly twice and blocked both Martínez and Wagner's shots. LAFC's Ilie Sánchez then sealed the victory for the Black & Gold, slotting his kick just past the fingertips of Blake.

In true Hollywood fashion, McCarthy was named 2022 MLS Cup MVP. In an emotional speech the next day in front a throng of LAFC fans, he thanked the club because before being signed he had "nowhere to go."

For LAFC, in only its fifth season, the club has achieved remarkable heights. They are the sixth club in league history to win both the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield in the same season. LAFC manager Steve Cherundolo is the only first-year head coach to win MLS Cup since Piotr Nowak for D.C. United in 2004.

"The worst thing you can do as a coach is jump into a situation you're not prepared for. So during those times when you are looking for the right job or looking for a job, it's about preparing yourself when it does come," said Cherundolo, whose prior job was head coach of USL side Las Vegas Lights. "I felt very well prepared for this job, and I think maybe two titles speaks for itself. "

Vela, the much-discussed and sometimes contentious LAFC captain, was treated to a king's welcome at the trophy ceremony. As one of two remaining original players, along with Latif Blessing, Vela has received both high praise and deep criticism over the years, and remains one of the most well-known Mexican footballers on the international stage.

"I finished my contract and thinking about if I stay here or not. In the end, we talk about the future, and say, ‘Come on, we need the trophy before I can leave the club or I can retire. Give me the chance,’" he recalled after the match.

"It's not about money and it's not about what I can do here. It's about I come here with a reason. I came here with a target and it was like, ‘give me more time.’ ... I had that in my mind. I put the target. Today, finally, we get it. Like I say, we took long to get it, but we got it."

LAFC will next prepare for the 2023 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League where they will face Costa Rican club LD Alajuelense in March.


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