It was a raucous, unprecedented afternoon on Nov. 5 at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles, as the host club LAFC won their first MLS Cup Final in an outlandish conclusion against Philadelphia FC.
LAFC were heavy favorites going into the contest after handily winning the regular season title in the Western Conference, finishing with 67 points, 11 more than second-place Austin FC. The Eastern Conference was much more competitive, with the regular season champion Philadelphia FC finishing also with 67 points, eking out the first seed by two points over CF Montréal. LAFC held the tiebreaker over Philadelphia to take home the Supporters’ Shield, which is the MLS regular season title.
To many MLS fans the playoffs felt like a foregone conclusion, as the top seed from each conference had a relatively easy time reaching the cup final. LAFC managed a 3-2 win over rival LA Galaxy before cruising by Austin FC 3-0 in the conference final. Philadelphia beat FC Cincinnati in a 1-0 defensive battle, and stood up to NYCFC 3-1 to become the Eastern conference champion.
Despite the somewhat humdrum nature of the playoffs, the MLS Cup Final game did not disappoint. The match started innocently enough, before Philadelphia centerback Jack Elliott was penalized with a yellow card for an infraction in the 14th minute. The teams seemed neck and neck in terms of possession and pass accuracy, but it was Philadelphia’s early lack of discipline that put them in trouble.
LAFC started the scoring on a direct free kick in the 27th minute when midfielder Kellyn Acosta’s ball struck the wall of Philadelphia defenders and deflected into the bottom left corner of the net, past three-time goalkeeper of the year, Andre Blake.
No more scoring occurred until the 59th minute, when Philadelphia midfielder Daniel Gazdag netted a ball off a beautiful lead pass from José Martinez.
LAFC answered in the 83rd minute when defender Jesús Murillo scored on a stunning header off of a corner delivered by Carlos Vela. Known for his passing ability, Vela led LAFC in assists during the regular season.
With only seven minutes plus stoppage time remaining, this goal felt like the final nail in Philadelphia’s coffin. Unfortunately for the hometown crowd Philadelphia answered back just two minutes later when defender Jack Elliott deflected a header past LAFC goaltender Maxime Crépeau. The header was made possible by a gorgeous setup from All-Star defenseman Kai Wagner on an indirect free kick.
The teams went into extra time tied at two. No scoring occurred in the first half of extra time, which went pretty uneventfully. However, in the 116th minute a disastrous collision occurred when Philadelphia striker Cory Burke was challenged by LAFC keeper Maxime Crépeau on a breakaway. Crépeau was awarded a red card for the dangerous play, and backup goalkeeper John McCarthy was inserted into the game to replace him.
It was an immediate challenge for McCarthy as Philadelphia set up a tenacious attack off of a corner kick, resulting in Elliott’s second goal of the contest, when he found a rebound off of a spectacular save by McCarthy. The goal occurred four minutes into stoppage time, and deflated the energy of the home crowd. It looked to be all but secured for Philadelphia.
Somehow, LAFC pulled out a miracle in the eighth minute of stoppage time when legendary Welsh winger Gareth Bale scored on a header low in the box to tie the game at three and send it to penalties.
After 120 minutes of hard-fought soccer, LAFC went into the penalty shootout with momentum. They were able to score three consecutive goals on Blake, while McCarthy stood strong and came up with two spectacular saves to help his team across the finish line.
LAFC, the younger brother of Los Angeles soccer, secured their first MLS Cup with the victory, and will hold bragging rights over the LA Galaxy until they meet again.