LAFC 3-3 Philadelphia Union (aet, 3-0 pens): Sub keeper McCarthy the hero as hosts win the MLS Cup

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LAFC won a wild ride of an MLS Cup final against Philadelphia Union as substitute goalkeeper John McCarthy emerged as the hero, saving two penalties in the shoot-out after an astonishing 3-3 draw.

In front of their own fans on Saturday, LAFC took the lead through Kellyn Acosta's deflected free-kick but were pegged back just before the hour when Daniel Gazdag scored his 24th goal of the season.

Jesus David Murillo headed LAFC back into the lead in the 83rd minute, but Jack Elliott stung the hosts with another leveller two minutes later.

English centre-back Elliott looked to have won it when he put Philadelphia back in front deep into extra time, after LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was sent off, but substitute Gareth Bale headed the hosts level in the eighth minute of stoppage time.

Then the drama really went up a notch, with McCarthy, a Philadelphia-born former Union goalkeeper, pulling off saves from Jose Martinez and Kai Wagner, after Gazdag also haplessly missed from the spot.

Ilie Sanchez tucked away the clinching penalty in a 3-0 shoot-out triumph, sparking wild celebrations of the team's first MLS Cup triumph, with McCarthy named MVP.

The opening goal in the 28th minute owed plenty to fortune, with Acosta's 22-yard strike flicking off the head of 19-year-old Union midfielder Jack McGlynn and finding the bottom-left corner.

This was the first time since 2003 an MLS Cup has featured the teams that came top in the West and the East. They each finished the regular season with 67 points, but LAFC took the Supporters' Shield due to having more wins than Philadelphia, and that earned them home advantage.

The game's first equaliser arrived in the 59th minute when what looked like a wildly ambitious 30-yard shot from Jose Martinez inadvertently turned into a throughball for Gazdag, who controlled the fizzing low ball well before firing past Crepeau.

Murillo looked to have headed a winner for Los Angeles with seven minutes remaining as he powered home Carlos Vela's inswinging corner from the right. However, a terrific equaliser from Elliott, a fierce header after a free-kick from Kai Wagner on the left, brought Philadelphia level in the 85th minute.

Bale entered the fray in the seventh minute of extra time, replacing Vela.

Philadelphia then looked to have been dealt an outrageous injustice when Cory Burke raced through on goal and was scythed down by Crepeau, who was initially only yellow-carded for a clear professional foul, but it was soon upgraded to red. Crepeau looked to be seriously injured and had to be carried off, and on came McCarthy, the unlikeliest of heroes.


What does it mean?

When the opener went in, it was hard to see LAFC being reeled in. For starters, they had won all 12 of their home games when taking the lead in MLS this season. They had also lost just one of their 19 home MLS matches against Eastern Conference opposition (W11 D7), a 2-1 defeat to New York City FC in May 2021.

Realistically, nobody could have envisaged the drama that followed, with underdogs Union going agonisingly close to lifting the trophy, only for Bale to keep up his happy knack of scoring on the big occasion. His double for Real Madrid against Liverpool proved decisive in the 2018 Champions League final, when he was named man of the match, and he was briefly the man of the moment here, too.

Then McCarthy began to earn his money, as Philadelphia lost their nerve. This was their first MLS Cup final too, and it ended in heartache.

Super John McCarthy

McCarthy became the first goalkeeper to enter an MLS Cup final as a substitute, and the first to shut out an opponent in a penalty shoot-out in the showpiece match. He could not do much about Elliott's late goal in extra time, but he rose to the occasion when it mattered most.

Bale's late show

Bale's goal in the eighth added minute in stoppage time was the latest in MLS history, breaking a record that Elliott had set only four minutes earlier. He heads to the World Cup with Wales on a trophy-winning high.

What's next?

This was a frantic climax to the MLS season, with the 2023 campaign getting under way in February. For now, attention turns to international football and the World Cup, with the United States facing England, Iran and Bale's Wales in the group stage later this month.