LAFC stuns Union in crazy finale thanks to Gareth Bale and a storybook hero

Gareth Bale’s late equalizer helped LAFC beat the Philadelphia Union at the 2022 MLS Cup in a penalty shootout. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Philadelphia Union and LAFC played 36 games and 120 minutes Saturday in the craziest impasses. They fought for more than two hours in Major League Soccer’s dream final, trade goals and shots and everything in between. Philly scored a potential winner in the 124th minute. Gareth Bale scored an equalizer in the 128th minute. They went to penalties to decide the biggest MLS Cup ever. And once there, the most unlikely of heroes arose.

John McCarthy, a Philadelphia-area native who had traveled the unseen lower levels of American football, came off the bench for LAFC beat his hometown and his former club.

In replacement of a starting keeper who had been both injured and sent offMcCarthy made two massive saves in the shootout and won his first LAFC Championship title.

Ilie Sánchez converted the decisive penalty, ran to McCarthy and hugged him. His teammates arrived seconds later and assaulted him.

The Union, about 10 minutes earlier, thought they had won their first MLS Cup at the death of extra time. Jack Elliott, the 77th overall pick in a mostly irrelevant draft, jumped on a loose ball in the box and caused mayhem. Philadelphia players piled on him. Debris from the Los Angeles crowd rained down on them. Thousands of miles away, at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, Union diehards jumped for joy and prepared for an all-night celebration.

But Bale, the former elite winger who had played just six minutes for LAFC since mid-September, came off the bench to head home with a superb equalizer three minutes later:

The 120 minutes – no, 130 – ended as some of the greatest the league has ever seen. Then McCarthy added to their legend and his own.

For nearly a decade he had bounced around humble football clubs, pitches and benches. He had played for La Salle University, for the Ocean City Nor’easters and for Reading United. He did a stint with the Rochester Rhinos. He finally got his chance in MLS in 2015 with his local club Union, where, ironically, he became something of a cult hero for his penalty-saving heroics.

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

He had, before Saturday, played a game all season.

He was perhaps the least likely of LAFC’s star-studded substitutes to see the field at Banc of California Stadium with a championship on the line.

In the second half of overtime, however, starting goaltender Maxime Crépeau flew off his line and eliminated Union forward Cory Burke. Crépeau, like the last man, received a red card and was horribly injured anyway. He was carried off the field. The minutes-long stoppage temporarily took the lives of a loud, relentless crowd and halted a dramatic match.

But he also did two other things. It created the nine minutes of downtime that Bale used to send Los Angeles into a frenzy. And he introduced the world to McCarthy.

Andre Blake, the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and the reason the Union barely used McCarthy half a decade ago, saved LAFC’s first attempt in the shootout. But Daniel Gazdag, with a chance to give Philly an early advantage, slipped and got his shot over the bar.

Denis Bouanga gave LAFC the lead on penalties. Then McCarthy read the thoughts of José Martinez and Kai Wagner.

Ryan Hollingshead, who had felt a chance late in stoppage time after 90 minutes, scored to put LAFC ahead 2-0. And Ilie sealed the victory. Ecstatic celebrations followed.

Kellyn Acosta, via a happy deflection, had opened the scoring for LAFC early:

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

They entered half-time down 1-0 but still confident.

Fourteen minutes after their return to the field, thanks to a fine first touch and finish from Gazdag, they were level:

Philly grew into the game from there. The pace was elusive, and that favored the underdogs.

LAFC took the lead again in the 83rd minute. Jesús Murillo rushed to the near post and sent the hosts ahead:

But just a minute after play resumed, Elliott equalized:

The long-serving Union centre-back came close to winning the Cup around 45 minutes later. But instead his former team-mate did it – with the help of a 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 they richly deserved – although the Union would have deserved it too.

Philly, with the league’s second-lowest payroll, proved they truly belong on MLS’s biggest stage.

LAFC, however, with quality throughout their 11 starts and former Champions League stalwarts unable to even break into it, have proven to belong at the top of that scene for months, if not years. years to come.

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