LAFC stuns Union in wild final thanks to Gareth Bale and textbook hero


Gareth Bale’s late equalizer allowed LAFC to beat the Philadelphia Union on penalties for the 2022 MLS Cup. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Philadelphia Union and LAFC played 36 games and 120 minutes Saturday to the wildest standoffs. They battled it out for over two hours in Major League Soccer’s dream finals, trading goals and punches and everything in between. Philly scored a potential winner in the 124th minute. Gareth Bale equalized in the 128th minute. They went to penalties to decide the greatest MLS Cup of all time. And once there, the most unlikely of heroes appeared.

John McCarthy, a Philadelphia native who had wandered through the unseen lower echelons of American football, came off the bench for LAFC beating his hometown and his former club.

Substituting for a goalkeeper in the starting XI who was both injured and sent off, McCarthy made two mighty saves on penalties and won LAFC their first league title.

Ilie Sánchez converted the decisive penalty, ran towards McCarthy and jumped into his arms. Seconds later, teammates arrived and harassed him.

The Union, about 10 minutes earlier, thought they had won her first MLS Cup after extra time. Jack Elliott, the 77th overall pick in a largely irrelevant draft, pounced on a loose ball in the box and heralded chaos. Philly players piled on top of him. Debris from the Los Angeles crowd rained down on them. Thousands of miles away at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, die-hard unionists jumped for joy and prepared for a night-long celebration.

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

The 120 minutes – no, 130 – ended up being some of the greatest the league had ever seen. Then McCarthy added hers and his legend.

For nearly a decade he hopped around humble football clubs, fields and benches. He had played at La Salle University, for the Ocean City Nor’easters and for Reading United. He played for the Rochester Rhinos. In 2015 he finally got his chance in MLS at his local club, the Union, where ironically he became a cult hero for his heroic exploits.

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

He had played in one game all season prior to Saturday.

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

In the second half of extra time, however, first-choice goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau flew off his line and defeated Union striker Cory Burke. Crépeau was the last man to get the red card and was still horribly injured. He was carted off the field. The minute-long hiatus temporarily took the life of a noisy and unrelenting crowd and interrupted a dramatic play.

But it also did two other things. It caused the nine-minute stoppage time that Bale used to send Los Angeles delirious. And it introduced the world to McCarthy.

Andre Blake, the MLS goalkeeper of the year and the reason the Union had little use for McCarthy half a decade ago, saved LAFC’s first try on penalties. But Daniel Gazdag, who had a chance to give Philly an early advantage, slipped and his shot sailed over the bar.

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

Ryan Hollingshead, who took a chance late in added time after 90 minutes, scored to make it 2-0 for LAFC. And Ilie sealed the victory. Ecstatic celebrations followed.

Kellyn Acosta had opened the scoring early for LAFC through a lucky distraction:

But Union never succumbed to the pressures, which of course came from star power and the stage and constant singing around them.

They went into half-time down 1-0 but still confident.

Fourteen minutes after returning to the field, they were tied thanks to a nice first touch and a nice finish from Gazdag:

From there, Philly grew into the game. Rhythm was elusive, and that favored the underdogs.

LAFC took the lead again in the 83rd minute. Jesús Murillo charged the near post and nodded to put the hosts back ahead:

But just a minute into play, Elliott equalized:

Around 45 minutes later, Union’s long-time central defender almost won the trophy. But his former team-mate did it instead – with some help from a Welsh star who was once the world’s most expensive player.

In the end, LAFC’s unparalleled depth won the day and the title. They got a well-deserved trophy – although the Union would have deserved it too.

Philly, with the second-lowest payroll in the league, has proven they belong on the biggest stage in MLS.

LAFC however, with quality in their starting XI and former Champions League players not even able to break into them, proved they belonged at the top of that stage for months if not years.

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