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Hernández: LAFC’s first championship comes in greatest MLS Cup final, full of twists and turns

Whatever LAFC’s owners believed was possible when they launched their franchise, whatever Carlos Vela had in mind when he became the team’s first player, they couldn’t have ever imagined the events that unfolded Saturday at Banc of California Stadium.

Five years into its existence, LAFC won its first championship, defeating the Philadelphia Union in a penalty shootout in the greatest of the 27 MLS Cup finals played to date.

“This,” Commissioner Don Garber said, “was Major League Soccer at its very best.”

How else to describe a game in which celebrity-signing-turned-afterthought Gareth Bale entered the game as a late substitute and headed in a goal for 10-man LAFC that leveled the score at 3-3 in stoppage time of overtime?

What else could be said about a contest in which LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was carted off, setting the stage for seldom-used backup John McCarthy to emerge as the hero with two saves in the shootout against his former team that earned him the game’s MVP award?

“Just a roller coaster,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said of the final in which both teams scored goals in the final minutes of both regulation and overtime.

LAFC’s Carlos Vela celebrates with his family after the team’s win over Philadelphia to win the MLS Cup.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The ride came to a stop after midfielder Ilie Sanchez’s spot kick skipped by the outstretched left hand of diving Union goalkeeper Andre Blake to secure a 3-0 victory in the shootout.

“It was like a Halloween movie,” Vela said, “and then we finished with a Hollywood movie.”

In the final scene of this mixed-genre feature, Vela raised the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy toward the heavens as confetti blasted out of nearby cannons and fireworks were shot in the background. In the stadium’s north end, the rambunctious 3252 cheering section that disrupted the Union’s penalty takers were blanketed in black and yellow smoke.

With MLS waiting to become mainstream, most of this city was likely unaware of what was happening on the southeast corner of Exposition Park, but finals like this should change that over time. The No. 1 selling point for any league is its games.

“This game had a little bit of everything,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said.

LAFC was ahead after a first half that didn’t feature many chances by either team, the 1-0 lead coming courtesy of a 28th-minute free kick by Acosta that was deflected into the net by Jack McGlynn, who was part of the Union wall.

The Union’s first goal, which was scored in the 59th minute, was also a product of good fortune, as a long-range shot by Jose Martinez found striker Daniel Gazdag behind the LAFC backline for a simple finish.

That’s when the game fell under a spell of madness and turned into something that could rival the San Jose Earthquakes’ four-goal comeback against the Galaxy in the 2003 playoffs as the single-greatest game in league history.

Jesus David Murillo headed in an 83rd-minute corner kick by Vela to move LAFC in front, 2-1, only for the defense to melt down as if it was an Andrew Friedman bullpen in October. Just two minutes after Murillo’s goal, LAFC allowed Union defender Jack Elliott to run unmarked into the penalty box, positioning him to get on the end of a free kick by Kai Wagner.

With the score tied, 2-2, the game went into overtime.

Sixteen minutes into the extra period, LAFC was reduced to 10 men when Crepeau ventured out of the penalty box to tackle Union forward Cory Burke, who was on a breakaway. Crepeau was red-carded, but also suffered a leg injury that required him to be taken from the field in a cart.

“I’m absolutely devastated for him,” said McCarthy, who speculated Crepeau wouldn’t be able to represent Canada at the World Cup in Qatar later this month.

McCarthy called Crepeau’s foul “the play of the game,” saying the game could have played out differently if Burke had scored.

Regardless, the Union went in front, in the fourth minute of stoppage time no less, with Elliott booting in a loose ball in the six-yard box.

Gareth Bale, third from left, scores the tying goal for LAFC against the Philadelphia Union on Nov. 5, 2022.

Gareth Bale, third from left, reacts after heading in the tying goal for LAFC in stoppage time. Once the world’s most expensive player, he was used primarily as a substitute after joining LAFC in June.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

But a couple of minutes from the final whistle, Diego Palacios reached the left endline, from which he crossed the ball into the middle of the penalty box. Bale headed in the tying goal, as he overpowered Elliott and knocked him to the ground.

Once the most expensive player in the world, the 33-year-old Bale had been used primarily as a substitute after joining LAFC in June. He entered this game in the seventh minute of overtime when he replaced Vela.

Bale’s unexpected heroics prepared the stage for the unlikeliest hero of all in McCarthy, a 30-year-old journeyman from Philadelphia who spent four previous seasons with the Union. His career included stops with minor league teams in Rochester, N.Y., and Chester, Pa. McCarthy had appeared in only one MLS game for LAFC this season. Suddenly, he was being called on to be LAFC’s team in a shootout.

The Union’s first kicker, Gazdag, slipped in his approach and sailed the ball high over the net. McCarthy dived to his right to stop Martinez’s shot and left to stop Wagner’s.

LAFC fill-in goalie John McCarthy makes a diving save of a penalty kick Nov. 5, 2022.

LAFC goalie John McCarthy dives to make a save on a penalty kick. The seldom-used backup emerged as the hero with two saves in the shootout against his former team and earned the game’s MVP award.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Soccer gods have a funny way of working,” Union coach Jim Curtin said.

As McCarthy was presented with the game’s MVP trophy, he wiped his eyes with the bottom of his jersey.

“A dream come true,” McCarthy said. “It still doesn’t make sense, doesn’t add up.”

The best games never do.

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