In hindsight, Major League Soccer changed forever when LAFC joined the party in 2018.
Before that, soccer aficionados believed there wasn't room for another soccer team in the LA market, a city that was recently selected as the top city for soccer fans in the country. Prior to LAFC's arrival, the only other time there were two teams in the city was when Chivas de Guadalajara used the MLS as a development academy for their Liga MX team.
For 10 years Chivas USA dwindled at the bottom of the table, averaging less than 5,000 people per match before they finally dissolved after the 2014 season.
Everything changed when the expansion LAFC proved they could pack their own stadium, known as "The Banc" located adjacent to the LA Memorial Coliseum in downtown Los Angeles.
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Built with a grassroots campaign in the community that forged the bond between Latinos and Angelenos alike, LAFC came out of the gate like the blast from a cannon, making the playoffs in their inaugural campaign, filling the stands with celebrities and special guests for each and every match.
So in some ways, the black and gold celebration, complete with pyrotechnics, that erupted at the Banc on Saturday afternoon and poured out onto the streets of Figueroa, all the way to L.A. Live was a perfect moment for the club and MLS as a whole.
LAFC's first ever MLS Cup title took longer than expected, but it finally came in a thrilling 3(3)-3(0) victory on penalty kicks in front of a sold-out viper pit of over 23,000 rabid fans.
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"It was like a horror movie," said LAFC captain Carlos Vela, whose been with the team since its inception. "And then it finished like a Hollywood movie. Like a dream, like something you could never imagine happening, actually happening. In my head, it kept changing from one movie to another."
In a story straight from Hollywood, LAFC's victory was as unpredictable and chaotic as their supporters themselves.
With the game tied 2-2 in the second 15-minute period of extra time, the history of the MLS would change dramatically in the 110th minute.
LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau challenged Union forward Cory Burke on a breakaway. The results were devastating for the Black and Gold. Crépeau appeared to break his ankle on the play, and was given a red card for his efforts. That meant LAFC would play the remainder of the match with 10 men, and their backup keeper, former Union goalie, John McCarthy in net.
Ironically, McCarthy was born in Philadelphia and went to college at nearby La Salle University. He played in Philly professionally after college until he was signed by his hometown club in 2015. He would play for the Union for four seasons before he fell out of the league entirely, bouncing from team to team before he signed with expansion club Inter Miami ahead of the 2021 season.
He signed as a free agent with LAFC in the offseason, and made just one appearance with the Black and Gold before finding himself in net in the most pivotal moment of the club's young history on Saturday.
"Soccer gods have a funny way of working," said Union head coach Jim Curtin of his former goalkeeper. "As soon as the injury happened, I started to half-joke with my staff that I can't believe Johnny is going to be in there and this is probably going to go to PKs, or something along those lines. Soccer is a funny sport that way."
In as fitting fashion as any protagonist in sports history, McCarthy was named the 2022 MLS Cup MVP after saving two shots in the penalty shootout to give LAFC the victory.
Illie Sanchez converted the third and final penalty kick for LAFC, eliminating the Union's chances of rallying.
Before the madness of extra time and the penalty kick shootout, arguably the best MLS Cup Final in league history saw six scintillating goals, including an astonishing five in the second half.
Kellyn Acosta's first-half goal flipped a match that had surprisingly been trending in favor of the visiting Union for most of the game.
Acosta was credited with the game's first goal, but his free kick in the 28th minute deflected off the head of Jack McGlynn, and goalkeeper Andre Blake—who was caught leaning to his left—for the early 1-0 lead for LAFC.
"It was a bit of fortune," said Acosta of his goal. "It took a slight deflection and was able to go in the goal. I told Carlos [Vela], I'm feeling it, and I was lucky enough for him to give it to me because usually if he wants it, I'm like, all right, it's Carlos Vela, right. I was like, 'I'll take it, put it on target,' and I was able to find the back of the net. It was a nice goal to start with and I'm happy to score it."
Playing with the lead, and the loud and raucous crowd behind them, LAFC's confidence should have grown in the second half. Instead, the Union leveled the score.
The second goal came off the foot of Daniel Gazdag, who finally broke through for Philadelphia in the 59th minute. Jose Martinez's apparent shot from outside the box was taken off the left foot by Gazdag—who had gotten behind the LAFC defense—and was slotted passed Crepeau for the equalizer. LAFC pleaded the referees for an offsides flag, but to no avail.
Jesús Murillo scored the go-ahead goal for the Black and Gold in the 83rd minute. Captain Carlos Vela took the corner kick from the far right end of the field and Murlilo headed it home to give LAFC the 2-1 lead.
However, before the sellout crowd could stop celebrating, the Union equalized in a matter of seconds. Philadelphia defender Jack Elliot leveled the score on a header of his own in the 85th minute. The sensational goal came off a free kick from well outside the box.
"It's classic Philly. They never give up," said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo. "They work hard. They are scrappy, and they can score goals in any phase of the game It's a roller coaster ride. But it's a classic final. A lot of finals throughout many competitions around the world are decided by set plays and those moments where mistakes are made, not so much on the run of play. I think we saw more of that tonight."
The game would go to extra time where each side took turns stifling the other until the catastrophic collision between Crépeau and Burke.
Playing with a man advantage, Philadelphia scored the go-ahead goal on a rebound in the 117th minute. It was Elliot again who was fortunate enough to find the ball at his feet after a Kai Wagner cross was blocked by McCarthy, the rebound falling in front of Elliot for the tap-in goal.
In an instant, the noisy din of drumbeats and chants from the thousands of LAFC supporters standing in the 3252 section fell silent. Shocked and stunned by the horror that occurred in front of them, and the realization that their once certain victory had been snatched away in seconds by an unrelenting Union team.
As the Union celebrated on the pitch, believing that Elliot's brace was enough to lift them to victory, nine minutes of stoppage time was added to the match. Could the undermanned LAFC find a miracle in the waning moments?
The answer was yes, but once again nobody could have written this ending.
Seeking reinforcements in extra time, Cherundolo turned to six-time Welsh Player of the Year Award winner Gareth Bale. Bale was supposed to be the summer transfer that put LAFC over the top. But the former Real Madrid striker had not played a single minute on a pitch in over a month, and did not appear in any of the team's preceding playoff matches.
"We spoke about if I'm needed for the last 20, 30 minutes, I'm available, because I haven't trained too much over the last three or four weeks because I've had this little slight issue," said Bale about his conversation with his coach before the game. "I was warming up for 40 minutes trying to make myself ready to come on. I knew if the game was close, I would be called upon."
Needing a miracle, and hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, Bale found the equalizer with just seconds remaining in stoppage time.
The former Premier League Player of the Year Award winner out-jumped a Union defender, heading in a Diego Palacios cross in front of the net for the equalizer. Pandemonium and bedlam at the Banc ensued.
"It's always nice to score in finals, and I seem to have a knack for doing that," said Bale of his equalizer in stoppage time. "It's big. It's important for the club. It's important for the fans. Like I said, we were down to 10 men, I guess not really looking like we were going to get anything out of the game. Credit to everybody and to keep pushing and keep fighting, and like I said, it was nice to get the goal and to help the team. It's special. The reason why I came here was to win the MLS Cup."
The game would go to penalty kicks with both sides kicking in front of the jaws of the 3252, who were chomping at the bit for an opportunity to get inside the heads of the Union's penalty takers.
After a miss by Christian Tello and Gazdag, respectively, Denis Bouanga converted the first penalty when he blasted a shot to the upper left corner of the net, passed Blake, the three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Award winner.
After a diving save by McCarthy on Martinez, LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead went dead-center to give LAFC a 2-0 advantage. That's when McCarthy stepped up for another sensational save on Wagner, setting up the game-winning moment for Sanchez.
"We felt confident throughout the 130 plus minutes and of course in the shootout," said Sanchez after the victory. "We knew how good John McCarthy is in goal, and we've been practicing penalty kicks in the past week. Of course, the win could have gone to their side, that's the unpredictability of the shootout. But I think that at home, we deserved to be champions, and that's what happened."
LAFC's 2022 race to the Cup follows on the heels of LA's other sports teams recent string of success: The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title just two years ago, the Dodgers won the World Series shortly thereafter, and the Rams hoisted the Lombardi Trophy earlier this year at SoFi Stadium.
The Union's success this season runs parallel with Philadelphia's sports recent fortunes: the Phillies also lost a championship on Sunday, but came two wins away from winning the World Series, the Eagles are a perfect 8-0, and the 76ers are among the favorites in the NBA's eastern conference.
"Obviously, we did everything in our power and pushed as hard as we could, but it wasn't meant to be today," said Curtin. "We were close. I'm gutted for our players. They obviously give everything for the badge and for the club and for the city, but kind of at a loss for words because this is a heartbreaking loss, no question."
But this championship moment was made for LAFC. The 2022 Supporter's Shield winners cruised through the regular season, finishing with the same amount of points as Philadelphia, earning home-field throughout the playoffs by virtue of two more regular season wins than the Union.
LAFC got one monkey off their back by defeating their rivals, the LA Galaxy, in the Western Conference semifinals. A second came toppling down when they exorcised the demons of their 2019 conference final disappointment, by vanquishing the upstart Austin FC 3-0 in dominant fashion. All that was left was to win the MLS Cup crown.
The greatest MLS Cup Final of all time lived up to its billing. In a matchup of two teams that felt as dead even as any could be, it's heartbreaking that one side had to be on the losing end of this one. Perhaps McCarthy said it best after the match, maybe it was destiny all along for LAFC.
"This is a moment that you dream about as a kid. I believed that I would lift the MLS Cup trophy one day. I didn't know when or where or how, but I believe hard work pays off," said McCarthy. "I'm a Philly kid through and through. I grew up in Philly my whole life, grade school, high school, college. I know the people from that city. I know a lot of guys on that team. I wish it was against somebody else, honestly, because I feel for the team and the city. If we weren't in the final, I would root for them. But to be put in that moment, to save a PK, to win MVP, it still doesn't make sense. It doesn't add up. This truly is a dream come true."