A weary Carlos Vela reluctantly checked out of the MLS Cup final in the 97th minute, giving way to Gareth Bale in a tense 2-2 game.
Los Angeles FC’s first player and longtime captain had no idea this epic final had only begun to exhaust him and everybody else involved in the most dramatic championship game in Major League Soccer’s 27-year history.
“For the first 10, 15 minutes, it was a Halloween movie,” Vela said. “And then we finish with a Hollywood movie.”
Bale tied the score 3-3 on a dramatic header in the eighth minute of extra-time stoppage time, backup goalkeeper John McCarthy stopped two Philadelphia shots in the shootout, and LAFC beat the Union 3-0 on penalty kicks to claim its first MLS Cup championship in spectacular fashion Saturday.
The afternoon ended with an LA celebration including confetti and movie stars, capping this expansion team’s five-year journey to the pinnacle of Major League Soccer. The final step in that journey was wilder and longer than anybody could have expected, but LAFC was strong enough to finish.
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“The game had a little bit of everything, for sure,” said LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta, who scored the first goal. “Goals galore. PKs. It was a roller coaster. It was crazy. It was an incredible game. It was a collective effort. We’re proud of this moment, but we really earned it, and we’re excited.”
The two late second-half goals that forced extra time were soon followed by the two very latest goals in league history — the first by Philadelphia’s Jack Elliott in the 124th minute, and the second by Bale to snatch the title from the Union’s grasp.
Bale equalized even with LAFC down to 10 men after goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau badly injured a leg while committing a red-card foul on Cory Burke — a foul that might have saved a goal, but which also is likely to force the Canadian to miss the World Cup.
“I saw his face, and we saw his emotion,” said McCarthy, who won the MLS Cup MVP award. “To me, that’s the play of the game. If he slides and misses, then it’s 3-2 and who knows how the game is going to end. He made a big-time decision by coming out and making that play. I’m devastated for him, because it’s a serious injury and it looks like he is going to miss the World Cup. You are not coming out of this game for a Band-Aid.”
McCarthy, the Philadelphia native and former Union keeper who had exactly one previous game of MLS action for LAFC this season, was forced into action — and he performed flawlessly. McCarthy didn’t allow a goal on the Union’s three attempts, watching Gazdag slip and sky Philadelphia’s first attempt over the crossbar, then diving to make saves on José Martínez and Kai Wagner.
“To be a Philly kid and play against my hometown team is something special,” McCarthy said. “I would root for them any day of the week except that one.”
After Cristian Tello was saved by Andre Blake, Denis Bouanga, Ryan Hollingshead and Ilie Sanchez converted penalty kicks for LAFC in the shootout.
“You feel for their goalkeeper when he gets stretchered off,” Union coach Jim Curtin said. “(McCarthy is a) great kid, a Philly kid who did great things in Philadelphia. Soccer gods have a funny way of working. I half-joked on the bench that I can’t believe Johnny is going to be there, and it’s probably going to go to penalty kicks.”
Sánchez sealed the victory and led his teammates off to celebrate in front of LAFC’s roiling North End of standing supporters at Banc of California Stadium. The rest of the ecstatic, black-clad home crowd included everyone from LAFC fans Justin Bieber and Colin Hanks to team co-owners Will Ferrell and Magic Johnson.
LA became the eighth team in MLS history to win both the Supporters’ Shield as regular-season champion and the MLS Cup playoff tournament.
“This place deserves this,” said first-year coach Steve Cherundolo, who engineered the huge turnaround by a team that missed the postseason last year. “These fans are amazing. They deserve a Cup, and they got it.”
Acosta scored in the first half for LAFC on a free kick that deflected off Jack McGlynn’s head, and Philadelphia top scorer Daniel Gazdag tied it early in the second. Jesús David Murillo headed home a tiebreaking goal for LAFC in the 83rd minute off a corner from Vela, but Elliott evened it again two minutes later.
McCarthy yielded Elliott’s second goal of the game to put Philadelphia ahead — but in the eighth of a scheduled nine minutes of stoppage time, the 33-year-old Bale drilled home a thrilling header off Diego Palacios’ excellent cross for the Welsh superstar’s third MLS goal and first in three months.
Bale, who left Real Madrid during the summer with an eye on preparation for Wales’ World Cup appearance later this month, was getting his first minutes with LA since Oct. 2. His next match figures to be Wales’ World Cup opener against the U.S. on Nov. 21.
“It’s Gareth being Gareth,” Cherundolo said. “Big qualities and makes big plays. Let’s hope he doesn’t do it in the first World Cup game. He makes a difference in games. I wish he was 24.”