MLS Cup: LAFC stuns Union in a wild final thanks to Gareth Bale and a storybook hero

Los Angeles FC forward Gareth Bale, second from right, celebrates after scoring the equalizing goal against the Philadelphia Union during overtime in the MLS Cup soccer match Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Philadelphia Union and LAFC played 36 games and 120 Saturday minutes to the wildest of stalemates. They sparred for over two hours in Major League Soccer's dream final, trading goals and blows and everything in between. Philly scored a 124th-minute would-be winner. Gareth Bale scored a 128th-minute equalizer. They went to penalties to decide the greatest MLS Cup ever. And once there, up stepped the unlikeliest of heroes.

John McCarthy, a Philadelphia-area native who'd meandered through the unseen lower tiers of American soccer, came off the bench for LAFC to beat his hometown and former club.

On as a substitute for a starting keeper who'd been both injured and sent off, McCarthy made two massive saves in the shootout and won LAFC its first league title.

Ilie Sánchez converted the clinching penalty, ran toward McCarthy and leapt into his arms. Teammates arrived seconds later and mobbed him.

The Union, some 10 minutes earlier, thought they'd won their first MLS Cup at the death of extra time. Jack Elliott, the 77th overall pick in a mostly irrelevant draft, pounced on a loose ball in the box and cued mayhem. Philly players piled on top of him. Debris from the Los Angeles crowd rained down on them. Thousands of miles away at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, Union diehards jumped for joy and prepared an all-night celebration.

But Bale, the erstwhile elite winger who'd played just six minutes for LAFC since mid-September, came off the bench to head home a stunning equalizer three minutes later:

The 120 minutes — no, 130 — ended as some of the greatest the league had ever seen. Then McCarthy added to their, and his, legend.

For almost a decade, he'd bounced around humble soccer clubs, fields and benches. He'd played at La Salle University, for the Ocean City Nor'easters and for Reading United. He had a stint with the Rochester Rhinos. He finally got his chance in MLS in 2015 with his local club, the Union, where, ironically, he became something of a cult hero for his penalty-saving heroics.

But he didn't play all that much. He spent most of three years as a backup, third-stringer, or on loan at the Bethlehem Steel. He signed with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2019, then with Inter Miami in 2020 and LAFC in 2022.

He had, before Saturday, played in one match all season.

He was, perhaps, the least likely of LAFC's star-studded substitutes to see the Banc of California Stadium field with a championship on the line.

In the second half of extra time, though, starting keeper Maxime Crépeau flew off his line and took down Union striker Cory Burke. Crépeau, as the last man, was red carded, and horrifically injured anyway. He was carted off the field. The minutes-long stoppage temporarily took the life out of a raucous and relentless crowd, and halted a dramatic game.

But it also did two other things. It created the nine minutes of stoppage time that Bale used to send Los Angeles into delirium. And it introduced the world to McCarthy.

Andre Blake, the MLS goalkeeper of the year, and the reason the Union hardly had any use for McCarthy half a decade ago, saved LAFC's first attempt in the shootout. But Daniel Gazdag, with a chance to give Philly an early advantage, slipped and sailed his shot over the bar.

Denis Bouanga gave LAFC the shootout lead. Then McCarthy read the minds of José Martinez and Kai Wagner.

Ryan Hollingshead, who'd whiffed at a chance late in stoppage time after the 90 minutes, scored to put LAFC up 2-0. And Ilie sealed victory. Ecstatic celebrations ensued.

Kellyn Acosta, via a fortunate deflection, had opened the scoring for LAFC early:

But the Union never succumbed to the pressure naturally applied by star power and stage and constant singing all around them.

They went into halftime down 1-0 but still confident.

Fourteen minutes after they returned to the field, thanks to a lovely first touch and finish from Gazdag, they were tied:

Philly grew into the game from there. Rhythm was elusive, and that favored the underdogs.

LAFC went ahead again in the 83rd minute. Jesús Murillo dashed to the near post and nodded the hosts back into the lead:

But just a minute after play restarted, Elliott equalized:

The longtime Union center back nearly won the Cup some 45 minutes later. But instead, his former teammate did — with some help from a Welsh star who was once the world's most expensive player.

In the end, LAFC's unprecedented depth won the day, and the title. They lifted a trophy they thoroughly deserved — though the Union would have deserved it too.

Philly, with the league's second-lowest payroll, proved that they very much belonged on MLS's biggest stage.

LAFC, however, with quality throughout its starting 11 and former Champions League stalwarts unable to even break into it, proved that they belonged atop that stage for months, if not years to come.