5: Crépeau Red Card
It’s not often goalkeeping errors become the play of the game. Maxime Crépeau left the box in the early seconds of the second extra time, misjudged Cory Burke’s speed, and his sliding clearance went through Burke’s ankle instead of the ball. Crépeau learned what Union fans already knew. Burke has an extra gear after ten yards that’s often deceptive because of his long, flowing strides. Unfortunately, Crépeau suffered a major injury on the play as well as a red card, but he also set the stage for an experienced penalty stopper to enter the game in it’s crucial moments while Burke exited the game minutes later, hobbling to the sidelines.
“Obviously, you lose a couple attacking pieces when Cory Burke goes out,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game. “He’s a guy that would normally hit one [PK]. When he goes out, Chris Donovan goes in, and you have the unique situation where you have to actually pull somebody because they are short a man.”
In the moment, the foul was easily ruled a DOGSO. Without contact, Burke would have run onto his touch and slid the ball into the empty net, fulfilling his own super sub role that has kept the Union attacking for 90 minutes throughout the playoffs. Instead, Crépeau’s error cost the goalkeeper his spotlight, the World Cup, and likely a majority of time next season. But it also set in motion the unthinkable change of events that led to LAFC winning their first MLS Cup.
“We talk about every possible change, every possible scenario,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said after the game. “I write it down. I document it all, and this is a scenario that we have talked about. Whether or not we would have done it, I don’t know. It’s purely hypothetical. It happened, so we had to.”
4: Jose’s Mistakes
Jose Martinez didn’t have his best game. He was instrumental in slowing down the LAFC front three, was still a beast in midfield, and assisted on the Union’s first goal by keeping a long shot low and close to the target, but multiple defensive lapses led to LAFC goals and put the Union on their heels twice.
In LAFC’s first goal, Martinez’s clumsy challenge on Chicho Arango outside of the box led to Kellyn Acosta’s opener off Jack McGlynn’s head. Before, the Union had been absorbing LAFC’s front three but keeping them from dangerous positions, but the goal put more wind in LAFC’s sails and made the Union’s comeback more grueling as it took them until the second half to regain a handle on the game.
“I thought we had a pretty good first half,” Cherundolo said. “We had a lot under control and deserved to be in the lead. We let them back in and got a little away from what we were doing. It probably has more to with Philly. They played very well in the second half.”
In the 83rd minute, with the game tied 1-1, Jesus Murillo ran free on a Carlos Vela corner and headed home the go-ahead and potential winner. The Union made several mistakes on the goal. They had established zonal marking. Jack Elliott held the back six, Jakob Glesnes the top of the six, and Kai Wagner and Cory Burke the front six. Mbaizo, on the top six between Glesnes and Wagner, was on the exact spot where the header came from, but he drifted out to win the ball against Denis Bouanga. Had he stayed, he would have had the positioning to challenge the header. But there’s no denying Martinez got beat in a one-on-one matchup without a pick or a rub. In a race to the ball, he lost, and it cost his team again.
3: The Final Two Minutes
Gareth Bale was brought to Los Angeles for a reason, and it’s not only because of the abundance of top-level golf courses. In 2013, Real Madrid acquired Bale from Tottenham for over €100 million after he was named the Premier League’s Player of the Year. Truth is, Bale’s produced on the big stage before. See 2013-14 Copa Del Rey and Champions League Final highlights. See the 2018 Champions League Final. He won 16 trophies during his time in Madrid and singlehandedly led Wales to the country’s first World Cup appearance in 64 years.
Put an any player in a game against fatigued legs, and he’ll look like he’s playing at a faster speed. Put an elite player in a game where the opponent played 110 minutes, he’ll look like Sonic the Hedgehog.
“It’s always nice to score in finals,” Bale said, “and I seem to have a knack for doing that. 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.”
It’s easy to go back and ask why wasn’t Palacios fouled in the corner? Why didn’t the Union drop back and bunker in? How come no one booted the first ball into the stands or fake a cramp when the ball went out for a throw in? We can argue about whether the Union could have done more for the rest of our lives, but we can’t ignore that a great player with a proven track record for scoring big goals did just that.
“It’s a piece that we have on our roster that I have that maybe Philly didn’t have. I think that’s just the difference tonight,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said after the game.
2: Big Game Jack
After Murillo’s goal seven minutes from the end, most people would have assumed the game was over. Not Jack Elliott. Two minutes later, Elliott headed home Kai Wagner’s free kick to pull the Union level and send the game to extra time. But it was Elliott’s follow up tap in during the 124th minute that gave the Union a 3-2 lead with minutes remaining in ET. Surely, Elliott was the Finals MVP had the game ended there, completing what has been an outstanding season, two outstanding seasons, considering the Union had brought in Stuart Findlay at left center back, only to fall behind Elliott in the depth chart due to Elliott’s play.
“A lot of guys had great days for both teams,” Curtin said. “I thought Jack Elliott, there’s a guy that maybe flies under the radar. So many others got individual accolades this year, and you know, sometimes they can’t choose so many players from the same team and I understand that so maybe he got overlooked quite a bit but an incredible final from Jack. Great performance.”
Elliott became the first defender to score two goals in an MLS Cup.
1: Philly Kid Dooms His Boyhood Club
Philly native John McCarthy won the MLS Cup. In any year other than this one we’d be congratulating him. McCarthy’s two penalty saves spurred LAFC’s win and earned him the MLS Cup MVP. The former La Salle captain and Union goalkeeper for four seasons also made an incredible save to deny Julian Carranza before Jack Elliot’s goal put the Union up 3-2.
“Johnny is a great kid, Philly kid, a guy that did great things here in Philadelphia,” Curtin said. “Soccer gods have a funny way of working and you know that as soon as the injury happened, I started to half joke with my staff that I can’t believe Johnny’s going to be in there, this is probably going to PKs.”
McCarthy, thrilled with the result, reflected on what it meant to break his home city’s hearts after the game. “To be a Philly kid and play against my hometown team, it’;s their first final, ever, in the MLS Cup, so it’s something special.” he said. “I would root for them any day of the week besides today, and I genuinely mean that. There’s a lot of good people in that organization, and they mean a lot to me. From that aspect, they have a lot of meaning in my heart, but there’s something that the group of people there actually taught me when you cross a white line, doesn’t matter who you are playing against, you play to win. That was the mentality for everyone from start to finish, and that was my mentality and it worked.”
For McCarthy, the dream of raising the MLS Cup and fulfilling his childhood dreams may still be sinking in. “I haven’t lifted a trophy since I was 15 years old at Northeast Catholic,” he said. “I was with a bunch of goofballs from Philly just playing soccer. I had a final at La Salle, I had a final in Philly in the Open Cup. For you to say that I would hold that thing, it still doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up. I believed that I would lift a trophy one day. I didn’t know when or where but I believe that hard work pays off.”
“We didn’t have Johnny and Gareth Bale being the ones that did us in today,” Curtin said, “but soccer is a funny sport that way and then those are the guys that stepped up in a big spot.”