MLS Cup 2022: LAFC edge Philadelphia on pens after Bale’s 128th-minute goal

Two unexpected figures – one a famed international, the other a journeyman goalkeeper – played the pivotal roles in helping the Los Angeles Football Club win its first Major League Soccer championship.

Reserve goalkeeper John McCarthy stopped two penalty kicks as LAFC won MLS Cup 2022 by defeating the Philadelphia Union on penalties, 3-0, Saturday in front of 22,384 at the Banc of California Stadium. Both teams played to a 3-3 draw following 90 minutes of regulation and 30 of extra time.

McCarthy entered the game in the second half of extra time after starting goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau received a red card. As a result of his unexpected efforts, McCarthy was named the game’s most valuable player in just his third appearance this year.

“John is an excellent goalkeeper,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “He’s the best number-two in the league. He could be a number-one elsewhere. He could be a number-one for us.”

McCarthy’s heroics punctuated an emotional game featuring the dramatic and the unpredictable.

“For 10, 15 minutes, it was like a Halloween movie,” said LAFC forward Carlos Vela, one of two members of the original roster still with the team. “Then we finished with a Hollywood (ending), like dreaming things, like something that you can’t imagine can happen, does happen.”

Union coach Jim Curtin described that drama powerfully.

“I lived through the 130 minutes and I think I aged probably about five or six years,” Curtin said about the combined amount of playing and added time. “It was chaotic. It was end-to-end. We were probably about two or three minutes away from lifting the MLS Cup trophy. I’m gutted for our players.”

Making McCarthy’s heroics possible was Gareth Bale, the former Tottenhan Hotspur and Real Madrid forward who will serve as Wales’ captain during this month’s World Cup. Bale scored the tying goal in stoppage time of the second overtime half, just four minutes after the Union took a 3-2 lead.

“It’s special,” Bale said of the championship after two teammates doused him with champagne during the post-game press conference. “The reason why I came here was to try to help the club win a trophy and to win the MLS Cup. Obviously, they’ve come close in the past but never got to the final and won it.”

Before this year, LAFC’s biggest chance came in 2019, when the team won its first Supporters’ Shield and tied a league record for most goals scored. But the Seattle Sounders beat LAFC in that year’s conference final on the way to winning MLS Cup.

Though Bale signed with LAFC on June 27, injuries limited him to just two goals in 12 regular season games. He had not played since Oct. 2 when he replaced Carlos Vela in the 97th minute.

“I’m not 100% at the moment,” Bale said. “I haven’t trained too much over the last three or four weeks. But we spoke about if I’m needed for the last 20, 30 minutes, I’m available.”

Bale’s availability provided dividends in the 128th minute, when he headed Diego Palacios’s left-wing cross into the net from seven yards while defender Jack Elliott tightly marked him.

But four minutes earlier, Elliott appeared to give Philadelphia the championship.

Kai Wagner sent a right-wing cross that hit LAFC’s Ilie Sanchez in front of the goal. McCarthy deflected the ball but Elliott converted from two yards for his second goal of the game, culminating a rally from a 2-1 deficit.

With the score tied, McCarthy went to work after Daniel Gazdag, the first of Philadelphia’s penalty takers, launched his shot high over the crossbar. Gazdag tied for second among the league’s regular-season scorers with 22 goals.

Then McCarthy dived to his right to deflect Jose Martinez’s shot at the left post. Next, he dived to his left to divert Wagner’s attempt.

“I’m not going to say I didn’t have some type of idea,” McCarthy said. “Literally, as I was sitting in the hot tub for pregame warming my body up, I watched a 9-minute clip of PK’s.”

Denis Bouanga, Ryan Hollingshead and Sanchez converted for Los Angeles, with Sanchez’s shot bouncing under diving goalkeeper Andre Blake to ensure the championship.

Ironically, the 30-year-old McCarthy grew up in Philadelphia and played four seasons for the Union as a reserve before joining the United Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2019. McCarthy then spent the past two seasons with Inter Miami.

“I’m a Philly kid through and through,” he said. “I grew up in Philly, went to grade school, high school, college. I know the people from that city. I know a lot of guys on that team, some of the fans. If we weren’t in and Philly was in the final, I would for sure root for them.”

McCarthy replaced Crepeau in the 117th minute, when the starter received his red card. Crepeau charged off his line and slid out the penalty area to trip Philadelphia’s Cory Burke on a breakaway. Both players went sprawling, and Crepeau had to leave the field on a motorized cart before being taken to the hospital. But while leaving, the Canadian international gave a “thumbs up” sign to the home fans.

“These 911 moments as I call them are part of our game plan,” Cherundolo said. “We tried to keep our larger stature players on the field for set pieces and crosses, and it worked.”

LAFC used Kellyn Acosta’s 26-yard free kick in the 28th minute to move ahead, 1-0. After Martinez fouled Cristian Arango, Acosta’s free kick ricocheted off the head of Philadelphia’s Jack McGlynn, who leapt with the defensive wall. Blake, playing the expected angle, found himself out of position as the ball trickled between him and the left post.

After the goal, Martinez used his jersey to hide the bottom half of his face.

McGlynn started for midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, the Union’s captain. Bedoya injured his hip flexor Sept. 17 against Atlanta and missed three of the ensuing five matches, including the final and the Oct. 20 playoff match against FC Cincinnati.

“If you take your captain off any team in this league, you’re going to get significantly weakened,” Curtin said. “To have the kind of performance we did without Alejandro was pretty big.”

Gazdag tied the score in the 59th minute. Wagner began the scoring sequence with a left-wing corner kick that LAFC’s Jesus Murillo headed away. But Philadelphia’s Olivier Mbaizo secured the ball at midfield and passed to Martinez, who found an unmarked Gazdag in the penalty area. Gazdag beat his marker and converted a rising 11-yard shot that settled under the crossbar.

LAFC regained a 2-1 lead in the 83rd minute. Vela’s corner kick from the right wing found Murillo, whose glancing header from just outside the right side of the goalkeeper’s crease settled inside the far post. But two minutes later, the visitors again tied the score. Wagner sent his 38-yard free kick from the right wing to Elliott, whose 10-yard header beat Crepeau.