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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Los Angeles Football Club crowned Major League Soccer Cup champions

In what has been dubbed the ‘greatest game in MLS history,’ the match showed just how much professional soccer has grown in the U.S. 

By MARLON ROLON — sports@theaggie.org


Just 10 miles separate Hollywood from the Banc of California Stadium, which is home of the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC). On Saturday, Nov. 5,  arguably the greatest game in U.S. Major League Soccer (MLS) history took place between LAFC and Philadelphia Union. It was a thrilling game, so dramatic that it resembled something out of a Hollywood movie script. 

The game featured a game-saving goal in the waning minutes of stoppage time and an unlikely hero in penalty kicks that helped LAFC win its first MLS Cup.

“For 10 minutes or 15 minutes, [it] was like a Halloween movie,” said LAFC’s striker Carlos Vela regarding the drama that ensued in the final minutes of overtime. 

“And then we finished with a Hollywood movie, like [we’re] dreaming things, like something you can’t imagine happen[ing], it happened.” 

 The star-studded event featured Hollywood’s brightest stars; Will Ferrell, Magic Johnson and Justin and Haily Bieber were in attendance to support LA’s team. 

Midfielder Kellyn Acosta was the first to score, giving LAFC the lead in the 28th minute of the first half after deflecting a free kick. At this point in the match, LAFC appeared to be in control, relishing the home-field advantage at the Banc. 

However, it didn’t take long for Philadelphia to level the game, with Daniel Gazdag scoring for the Philadelphia Union in the 59th minute of the second half. 

The remainder of regular play was a back-and-forth between the two teams, reminding spectators of the groups’ — who were both the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences — dominance throughout the season. 

With the clock winding down in the 83rd minute, LAFC defender Jesus Murillo scored on a header, giving the home team the lead once more. With six minutes left in regulation play, LAFC appeared to be on the cusp of lifting the trophy — but the game was not quite over.

Philadelphia roared back the following minute with a header from defender Jack Elliott, tying the score 2-2 and sending the game to overtime. 

“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 of the run and play, and I think we saw more of that tonight,” LAFC Head Coach Steve Cherundolo said of the match.

The biggest mistake of the match came in the 109th minute, during stoppage time, when LAFC’s Murillo miscalculated a back pass intended for goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau. That mistake resulted in not only a red card but also a right-leg fracture for Crepeau as he collided with Union striker Cory Burke during a one-on-one breakaway. Crepeau had to be carted off the field, and LAFC was down to 10 men as substitute goalkeeper John McCarthy was forced to come into the match without warming up. McCarthy had only made one appearance in the regular season in a 2-0 loss back in May. 

The Banc of California Stadium was silenced in the 123rd minute of stoppage time when Elliott scored a second goal for the Union. With LAFC down a player,  Elliott’s late goal seemed to secure the MLS Cup win for Philadelphia. But LAFC didn’t give up. 

LAFC’s Gareth Bale scored in the 128th minute of play, evening the score once more with just one minute left in stoppage time.

The prior Real Madrid star signed to LAFC during summer 2022 on a one-year contract. Surprisingly, Bale started in just two games and appeared in 12 for LAFC throughout the season as he dealt with a slew of injuries throughout the regular season. 

“It’s Gareth being Gareth, he does it in training, he’s done it this season when he’s feeling well and healthy, he makes a difference in games and that’s why we bring him in those moments,” Cherundolo said of his decision to bring in Bale in the 97th minute. 

“It’s always nice to score in finals, and I seem to have the knack in doing that,” Bale said in regard to his last-minute goal. 

With the score tied after stoppage time, the match then progressed to penalty kicks. McCarthy, LAFC’s substitute goalkeeper, came up big for his team in arguably the biggest game of his career thus far. 

“To be a Philly kid and play against my hometown team — it’s their first final ever — it’s something special,” McCarthy said. “It was just a moment that you dream of as a kid, to play in a final. I wish it was against somebody else, honestly, because I feel for the team and the city. If we weren’t in it and Philly was in the final, I would for sure root for them.”

After multiple rounds of back-and-forth scores on penalty kicks, the game came down to Philadelphia’s Martinez. McCarthy dove to his right, blocking the PK and eliciting roars from the crowd sporting LAFC’s black and gold colors. 

LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead midfielder did his part in making the next penalty kick, and McCarthy ended the game with another stop, this time of defender Kai Wagner’s PK attempt.

 “It’s the highest game I’ve ever played in; it’s the highest game I’ve ever been on the bench in; it’s an amazing moment,” McCarthy said in an exclusive interview with The Aggie after the game. 

McCarthy’s heroics earned him the MLS Cup MVP honor. From only playing in one regular season game to coming off the bench into one of the most important games of his life, McCarthy played an integral role in delivering the city of Los Angeles the MLS Cup.

“You can see how happy everybody is now — the fans, the city,” Bale said. “It’s important for this club to go to the next level, and I think by winning this trophy, it shows that we are.”


The Growth of the MLS in Recent Years

As soccer continues to grow in popularity within the United States, the MLS has been expanding. Since 2015, the league has introduced 11 teams. Of those new clubs, three have won the MLS Cup since their inauguration into the MLS — Atlanta United in 2018, New York City FC in 2021 and now LAFC in 2022. Many of these squads were also featured in this year’s playoffs.

With this growth, star players with extensive backgrounds in top-flight European leagues, like Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Gareth Bale, have come to play in the MLS. These players have been crucial to the growth of the MLS because of their notoriety at the international level. 

Ultimately, more clubs and internationally-known players have meant more eyes on MLS as a whole. The 2022 MLS Cup drew a combined 2.155 million viewers between Fox’s English-language broadcast and Univision’s Spanish-language broadcast, up from 2021’s championship, which drew 1.557 million viewers. 

MLS ratings in general are also up across ABC and ESPN. The average audience across both networks is 343 thousand per game, which is a 16% increase from last year. 

MLS has partnered with Apple TV+ to help grow soccer in the United States. MLS reached a 10-year agreement worth $2.5 billion with Apple TV+, set to begin in 2023. Subscribers will be able to stream every MLS game on a global scale. 

MLS is no longer considered an “irrelevant” league; it’s turned the corner in American sports, and with the World Cup coming to North America in 2026, soccer is only going to keep growing.


Written by: Marlon Rolon — sports@theaggie.org