Backup goalkeeper John McCarthy, who played only one game this season, came off the LAFC bench to make two saves in a penalty-kick shootout, giving the team its first league title in a dramatic MLS Cup final at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday.
The game ended 3-3 after 90 minutes of regulation and two 15-minute periods of extra time.
During the shootout, McCarthy guessed correctly twice, diving to his right to stop a shot by José Martínez and to his left to save a try by Kai Wagner. Philadelphia’s other try, by Daniel Gazdig, went well over the crossbar when Gazdig slipped as he was about to take the kick.
In seven MLS seasons, including four with the Union, McCarthy had never previously saved a penalty kick in an MLS match.
Denis Bouanga, Ryan Hollingshead and Ilie Sánchez all converted penalties against Philadelphia keeper Andre Blake, the league’s top goalie who had 15 shutouts during the regular season.
The game appeared to have taken a calamitous turn for LAFC five minutes into the second extra-time period when a giveaway by LAFC’s Jesús Murillo deep in his own end freed Philadelphia’s Cory Burke for a breakaway. LAFC keeper Maxime Crépeau came out of the box to meet him, tripping Burke up and draw a red card for the challenge.
That forced LAFC to play the rest of the overtime shorthanded, but more importantly, the collision forced Crepeau to leave the field on a cart, with McCarthy coming on in his place. And the first shot McCarthy saw got past him, with Jack Elliott knocking a loose ball in at the far post in stoppage time. It was his second goal of the game and it appeared to give the Union the title.
But LAFC wasn’t going to go quietly, with Gareth Bale’s header off a Diego Palacios cross with just seconds left to play sending the game to penalty kicks. Ten minutes later McCarthy would be the hero.
The game was the first MLS Cup clash of the two conferences’ top seeds since 2003 and just the fourth in league history between two first-time Cup participants and it didn’t disappoint.
It was also, arguably, the most evenly matched title game ever. Both teams finished the regular season with 67 points. Philadelphia led the league in goals, LAFC was second. Philadelphia was the stingiest in terms of goals allowed, LAFC was third.
Since 2018 no team has more wins than LAFC’s 79; Philadelphia is second with 78. The team’s last three regular-season matches all ended in draws. So it was no surprise Saturday’s game would need penalty kicks to be decided.
LAFC took the early advantage when Kellyn Acosta’s right-footed free kick from about 10 yards outside the box struck Philadelphia’s Jack McGlynn in the head and ricocheted past Blake. The 28th-minute goal, Acosta’s first in a postseason game, was just the second Blake has allowed since Oct. 1.
The free kick was set up when Martínez upended Cristian Arango, drawing the foul.
LAFC, which had lost just once this season when scoring first, nearly doubled the lead 10 minutes later when Carlos Vela picked out Palacios charging into the box on the left wing, but Blake slid over and made a spectacular diving save on Palacios’ left-footed shot from the edge of the six-yard box.
That allowed the Union to even the game in the 59th minute on a goal by Gazdag. The play, which was strange in its build-up, started with a corner that Murillo cleared well out of the box. The ball eventually found its way to Martínez, whose mishit shot from distance caromed to Gazdag in the box for the easy right-footed finish over Crepeau and just under the crossbar
When Gazdig broke after the ball Murillo, the closest defender to him, was slow to react, raising his right arm for an offside call instead. But referee Ismail Elfath, who kept his whistle in his pocket most of the afternoon, let the score stand without bothering to consult a replay.
Murillo pulled that goal back in the 83rd minute, charging into the box to nod in a Vela corner kick. But the lead lasted less than two minutes before Elliott evened the score again, heading in a Wagner cross off a set piece.
That marked just the second time this season that LAFC conceded multiple goals to let a second-half lead get away, sending the MLS championship game to extra time for the 12th time. It was the sixth MLS Cup final to go to penalties.