It’s a bright, sunny Sunday morning on the Venice Beach promenade. The blue sky extends for an eternity above the Pacific Ocean, encircling the city from the hills of Pacific Palisades to Hollywood to downtown where Banc of California Stadium just hosted its first MLS Cup between the Los Angeles Football Club and the Philadelphia Union.
It’s quite a sight. A tractor rakes miles of flat sand as vendors set up tents and tables, soon to be filled by wooden signs, knick-knacks, sculptures, tatoo designs, paintings, caricatures, and street food, adding to the already vibrant atmosphere. Even before noon, the concrete skate park draws a steady crowd. A line of bystanders surround the outer bowl, cheering for a landed kick flip or a frontside 360. Nearby, roller dancers twirl and groove to beats wailing from a portable speaker, and for a moment I feel as if I’d returned to my childhood mecca Warrington Roller Rink.
It’s a bustling morning. The knocks from the paddle balls compete with the basketballs on the courts where Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes filmed White Men Can’t Jump. The multi-million dollars homes overlook the pathway filled with joggers, bikers, and skateboarders, most of them human powered, but the occasional electric ones sneak up behind as I try to dodge the walking dogs. Not far is one of the many outdoor gyms of Muscle Beach, where fitness legends like Jack Lalanne, Joe Weider, and Arnold Schwarzenegger built an entire industry.
I pass one heated argument between rival homeless factions only to pass another several hundred feet later. The first one was jarring. My defense mechanisms kicked in, searching for exits. Do I duck inside a café or test my long-lost 40-yard time? By the dozenth time, the arguments lose their appeal, and the incoherent screaming and threats of violence become as common as the wheels on concrete, the chords of the bassist playing Red Hot Chilli Peppers, or the smell of cigarettes, which my Covid-riddled senses default to weed because they can’t distinguish between the two.
It’s hard to believe the Philadelphia Union were seconds away from winning the MLS Cup. To try to explain what happened in those final minutes of extra time sounds counter-intuitive to my current environment. It’s like re-living crushed dreams in the middle of paradise, and who wants to do that? But I’ll try.
Only a Philadelphia story would end with a local kid, John McCarthy, stopping two penalty kicks to deny his boyhood club an almost perfect season. How do I explain the failed penalties? Or how Andre Blake could save one penalty and guess right on two more and even then have that not be enough? Or the heroics of Jack Elliott, who two years ago watched as the Union signed his replacement, then played the best soccer of his life, scoring twice in the MLS Cup final, the second goal nine minutes after LAFC keeper Maxime Crépeau shattered his leg hacking down Cory Burke on a clear winner, which should have brought the trophy back to Chester? Or how a world icon, who singlehandedly won the Champions League with Real Madrid over four years ago, after only playing the final twenty plus minutes of ET, headed home the equalizer in the final seconds?
Even after all the years I’ve been playing, coaching, and watching soccer, some things are still unexplainable.
# # #
It’s my first time in California, a place that only existed in the words of Frank Norris, Brett Easton Ellis, and Joan Didion or from Saved by the Bell, 90210, The OC, or any number of movie scenes portraying the California vibe. I was eager to explore what makes the west coast so different from the east coast. The weather, for sure, because it never changed until the morning I left when the sky turned gray and I walked to breakfast in a steady spritzing, one of the rare wet days of the year, many told me.
My first Uber driver upon landing was Helene, a voice actress from Malvern. She laughed when I told her I was from Philly. “Didn’t you notice my Eagles sweatshirt?” she said. I was staring at the hundreds of missed emails, texts, and notifications. I asked how she ended up out here, which was like many of the journeys I’d heard before of going to Los Angeles to make it in the cutthroat entertainment business. Now, while recording audiobooks, she rests her voice by driving, a worthwhile venture shared by many of the drivers I spoke with throughout the weekend because of the city’s expansiveness.
It doesn’t take long for me to find way around. My cousin, Jess, who’d moved out twenty years ago, and her husband, Charlie, an LAFC supporter and a devout Liverpool fan, help me experience as much of the city as possible during my brief stay. The night before the game, I meet them at the legendary Comedy Store, not far from Hollywood Boulevard where Philly-area natives Edwin Forrest, Grace Kelly, Sly Stallone, Kevin Bacon, and P!NK have stars among the hundreds that align the sidewalks outside the world-famous theaters. Eight comics come onstage every fifteen minutes, discussing everything from politics to relationships to sex, with sex stirring up the biggest response. As my body clings to East coast time, and I become overwhelmed by fatigue, game day arrives.
# # #
Despite the loss, there’s much to be grateful about: the records, the journey, Coach of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year, Defender of the Year (which could have easily included two others), Humanitarian of the Year, a snubbed MVP candidate, another MVP candidate who deserved to win. Most importantly, how a fanbase rallied around a team that never wavered in its focus and style, pushing beyond the limits of our expectations to deliver once again on the final stage, only to be denied by twelve yards and a lifelong Philly sports fan.
After a game like this, I try not to rush toward judgement. The emotional proximity to death makes it too difficult to analyze the events that led to it. It’s too easy to criticize micro moments. Soccer is a game of mistakes, and the silence of the losing locker room, where the air feels as stale as a funeral parlor, proves the meaning of those mistakes to the people involved.
The Union players, many with hoodies over their heads, communicate in monosyllabic grunts while staring at phones, the floor, or anywhere besides the media. Other players stay in the shower, rinsing off the grime of 130 minutes of the most passionate soccer played in MLS Cup history, yet they’re unable to wash away the devastation. No one meets another’s eyes, especially mine, and I don’t blame them. Nothing I say or do will make that pain go away. Six days ago, these same players, donning ski goggles, danced and sang to club music among empty champagne bottles and beer cans littering the floor of the home locker room at Subaru Park. The sprays soaked the walls, their Eastern Conference Champions t-shirts, cameras, and phones. The memories clung to my clothes for days as they sat in the hamper, left as a reminder of why we love the game. It’s cruel to imagine how quickly that elation can turn.
I have questions about the game. Why didn’t anyone boot the ball into the stands in the final minutes? Fake a cramp? Foul Palacios on the side before he could get a cross off? There are logical answers. The players were gassed. The Union were out of subs, so they couldn’t insert another defender and pack it in. The flow and length of the game made it impossible to keep some of the featured penalty takers on the field. The final moments when most could barely walk, let alone run, became overshadowed by an elite player who’d delivered Champions League titles, Copa Del Reys, fresh after coming in during extra time, eager to prove himself again.
What else could Jim Curtin have done? Curtin, a Philly-area kid who played for a Philly-area college, took an outdoor Philly pro soccer team to the brink of its first championship since the Atoms won the NASL in 1973, six years before he was born. He made the subs he needed to win. Isn’t that all we can ask? I read the post-game grumblings on social media hours after the game. To say he didn’t prepare for extra time and penalty kicks is unfair. To say the Union choked is outrageous. Penalty kicks is a crapshoot ending determined by skill and a lot of luck, where keepers sometimes guess the right way, where a ball sits waist height one kick but just over or under the outstretched fingers on another. No one predicted John McCarthy winning the MVP.
Cory Burke hobbles around outside the locker room as if he too may have broken a foot or an ankle. Alejandro Bedoya, unable to play, also makes an appearance. Their losses mattered. Chris Donovan for Burke, Paxten Aaronson for Jack McGlynn, in the heated moments of the game, each of these subs made an impact, nudged the Union closer to scoring the final goal, closer to winning. Then came Bale, an example of big spending by MLS teams to attract world-class players, players with the experience and capability to change the game with the flick of a head. How do you prepare for Bale even when up until the days before the game, he wasn’t expected to play. Many will wonder how the Union, the league’s second-lowest spending team, could construct a roster that came within seconds of victory. That in itself could be the premise for a story with box office potential. Rags to Riches: Philly Soccer, Moneyball II, Once Upon a Time in Chester. How much can we say those differences mattered? Because at the end of the day, they did.
# # #
After the game, I meet my cousin and her friends, all Philly expats and LAFC supporters, at the Arts District Brewery Company (828 Traction Ave). Expecting a mixture of flannels and beards, I instead walk into a converted warehouse with fermentation and storage tanks in the middle of a 360 degree bar that has the feel of Dave and Busters without kids. I try to catch up with pilsners while playing a few games of skeeball with my cousin like we’d done every summer at the Jersey Shore as the Phillies’ World Series hopes are swiped away by a single swing of Yordan Alvarez’s bat.
As their post-celebration hunger sets in, we head into Koreatown, to a small block of bars and restaurants inside Chapman Plaza, a Spanish style fortress named one of LA’s Historic-Cultural Monuments. We share a pitcher at Toe Bang (3465 W 6 th St) while waiting for a table across the street at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. The hour and a half wait was worth it as we soon down savory meats picked off the center-table grill and dipped in spicy sweet and sour sauce over bottles of Terra, re-living the game.
My hosts are happy, of course, and I am happy for them. One of us had to win. My cousin’s husband tells me if LAFC lost, he wouldn’t have wanted to go out. He later says he was kidding, but I doubt it. Re-living the horrors of a silent stadium after Elliott’s late goal would have been the same as me watching Carlos Vela raise the trophy. He says he knew Bale would be the guy. His friend from Liverpool, in for the weekend and witnessing his first live MLS game, agrees. They hate Bale because of his brace against Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League Final, a strong word, but I’m certain of its choice. That’s how much the game means to us all. “But I love him,” he says with a grin.
# # #
LA wakes up late. Most of the breakfast places don’t open until 8 a.m., which makes my stomach growl every morning upon waking. My favorite spot is Gjusta (320 Sunset Ave), a bakery-eatery a half-mile from my hotel in Venice. Walking down Sunset Avenue, away from the beach, I pass another homeless encampment beside Gold’s Gym (not the original building), named after fitness guru Joe Gold (not the current owner), who set the fitness club industry standard. Gjusta is a grand operation of baked breads, pastries, coffee, and breakfast and lunch items that can be ordered off the menu and taken outside to many of the tables and benches on a paver terrace. I don’t eat breakfast outside often. Maybe a few times during the summer or while down the shore, but I’m relieved by the calmness, the slow pace of California life. I can get used to this. I’m wearing my Union hat, hoisting the flag, and not long after I sit down the conversations around me steer toward soccer and the World Cup.
My final Uber ride to LAX is with Oleg, who has a thick, raspy Russian accent that booms when I joke how I was leaving because of the rain. Oleg was a founding member of the Russian rock band Red Elvises, who toured all over the world, including numerous stops in Philly and Musik Fest in Bethlehem. Our conversations briefly venture into the elections, toward the World Cup in Russia, which he witnessed while on vacation with his kids. “It was a great time,” he says, “a great demonstration of our country,” which I agree because the people I’d known who were there said the same, “then they went and fucked it all up.”
# # #
We’ll learn in the coming days and weeks how the Union move on from a loss of this magnitude. I expect some transfers, changes. After three years of building a team on the cusp of winning, we’ll find out how the locker room changes. Next year, the Union will be play more games, Champions League and Leagues Cup on top of the regular season and the U.S. Open Cup. Players who have played as many games as anyone in the league, with a short bench, and numerous internationals sprinkled in, will attempt to maintain the same level. Olivier Mbaizo, the first player to go to a World Cup while with the Union, will conclude his second-straight year without an offseason. We’ll discover how numerous longer seasons followed by shorter offseasons affect the players’ recovery. This time next year, we’ll have the answer to trying to convert the non-soccer masses instead of focusing on the soccer fans.
I can say the Union will be back. I hope there will be another run. But my sports experiences lead me to withhold that certainty. My gut knows better. After a long, emotional journey that ends with a finals loss, teams usually don’t perform the same way in the ensuing season. It took the Phillies 13 years to return to the World Series. The Eagles won the Super Bowl five years ago and are only now considered re-built. The Sixers haven’t been to a final in 21 years, the Flyers 12, and neither appears to be seeing one anytime soon. The complexities of championship building are vast and unpredictable, and they don’t transfer from one season to the next because a team was close. The Union have progressively gotten better each of the past six years, but that doesn’t guarantee they will make it over the ledge.
I try to remember, as I take a final pass on the beach and walk out on the Venice Pier, that as much as soccer enriches our lives, we can find happy stories all around us. Dozens of fisherman dangle lines in the water hundreds of feet from the sails flapping in the breeze. It’s another cloudless day in L.A., and I’m wearing a t-shirt in November. Everyone here savors the present.
From the cafés to the souvenir shops, for the kids at the nearby Santa Monica Pier, the surfers, the boarders, the residents sitting on their glass-walled decks sipping coffee, today is another day to dream, to grind away at those dreams. The Union took us to La La Land, to the biggest stage in American soccer, and played the greatest game we’ve ever seen.
Hollywood has tragic endings, too.