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How Los Angeles FC won MLS Cup: Set pieces, Bale, and plenty of chaos

Between a number of set piece goals, back-and-forth plays, and big moments, LAFC’s win came in one of the most memorable MLS games of all time.

6 min read

Quick Hits

  • Los Angeles FC beat the Philadelphia Union in a penalty shootout in Saturday’s MLS Cup at Banc of California Stadium
  • Between all of the set piece goals, back-and-forth plays, and big moments, LAFC’s win came in one of the most memorable MLS games of all time

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – It was a deafening roar.

Los Angeles FC’s Ilie Sanchez’s penalty just snuck past Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake and as it hit the back of the net, Banc of California Stadium absolutely erupted. For the first time ever, LAFC were MLS Cup champions.

In the first MLS Cup matchup between top seeds in almost two decades, LAFC, the Western Conference’s top team, and the Philadelphia Union, the Eastern Conference’s top team, delivered on Saturday. Before penalties, they treated us to six goals in a 3-3 deadlock, including two that came deep into the second half of extra time. Then came the penalty shootout. Oh, and the MLS Cup MVP? That went to LAFC’s backup goalkeeper John McCarthy, who came on in the 117th minute to fill in for the injured Maxime Crépeau.

Let’s read between the match’s chaotic lines and dive into how LAFC won this year’s MLS Cup.


I’m going to lay a stat on you, so get ready. Of the six goals in this game, five of them were scored directly from or just after a set piece.

LAFC opened the scoring with a goal from Kellyn Acosta on a free kick in the 27th minute. After winning the ball in the attacking half, LAFC’s Chicho Arango picked up the ball and eventually drew a foul in Zone 14 (the central area just outside the box). Acosta took the free kick with his right foot, the ball deflected off Philly’s Jack McGlynn, and beat Blake.

It was a goal out of nothing. But in championship games, those are so often the kinds of goals that have the biggest impact. For LAFC, it was a much needed breakthrough.

“Yeah, it was a bit of fortune,” Acosta said after the game. “[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?”

Outside of Acosta’s goal, the first half was quiet, especially compared to the fireworks in the second half, extra time, and the penalty shootout. Each team took eight shots in the first half, but seven of those 16 total shots were blocked and nine of them were taken from outside the box. Neither team had much interest in controlling the ball or opening up. LAFC had the expected goals advantage at the break (0.4 xG to 0.2 xG for Philadelphia), but only by the finest of margins.

Almost 15 minutes into the second half, the Philadelphia Union hit back with a set piece goal of their own. After LAFC cleared a Union corner kick out of their box, Martinez took a shot from – uh, how do I put this – downtown. Martinez’s shot was hit so badly that it turned into a pass to Philadelphia’s star No. 10, Daniel Gazdag. Gazdag controlled Martinez’s effort, turned, and equalized to get Philadelphia back into the game.

Another set piece, another goal. 1-1.

According to Second Spectrum, the Philadelphia Union created the most xG per set piece (0.019) in MLS this season. Coming into this game, LAFC weren’t as dangerous on set pieces, averaging 0.012 xG per restart, but they were third in the league in shots created from set pieces per game (3.5). As it happens, both teams were also in the top 10 in MLS when it comes to limiting the quality of their opponent’s chances on set pieces.

But in MLS Cup? That quality defending went right out the window.

Later in the second half, a couple of center backs traded set piece finishes of their own. Jesús Murillo scored a header off a Vela corner kick in the 83rd minute, only for Jack Elliott to get the Union right back into things in the 85th minute. Then Elliott scored the go-ahead goal to make it 3-2 in the 124th minute…from another set piece.

It looked like things were over. It looked like the Philadelphia Union were going to walk out of Banc of California Stadium with a trophy. But then, Gareth Bale happened.


“It’s Gareth being Gareth.”

That’s LAFC manager Steve Cherundolo on Bale’s equalizing goal in the 128th minute (yes, you read that correctly). Bale wasn’t fully healthy for Saturday’s game, but he still played a pivotal part in the match after coming on to play as a striker during extra time. With his team down to 10 players after Maxime Crépeau’s red card and down a goal after the Union’s latest successful set piece, Bale needed to produce something.

And he did.

After a throw-in on the left, Diego Palacios broke down the wing and played an inch-perfect cross into the box. Instead of rushing towards the goal, Bale waited patiently for the play to develop and for the ball to find him at the edge of the six-yard box. One impressive leap and a strong header later and the LAFC fans at Banc of California stadium were cheering at the top of their lungs.

LAFC signed Bale earlier this season for a moment just like that one. They signed him to manufacture a magical moment at a time when it felt like all hope was lost. Bale, undoubtedly, delivered.

“We were down to 10 men, I guess not really looking like we were going to get anything out of the game,” Bale said afterwards.

“For 10 minutes, 15, it was like a Halloween movie,” Vela said on Saturday night, referencing the period from Crépeau’s red card and injury to Elliott’s second goal that put Philadelphia up 3-2 late in extra time. “And then we finished with a Hollywood movie.”

Bale hasn’t been a major factor for LAFC this year, playing less than 400 minutes in MLS. But he came up with a smart, athletic, and skillful moment at just the right time. Thanks to his goal, LAFC could hope again.


Between the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles and the cast of celebrities that regularly attend their home games – Saturday’s crop included owners Magic Johnson and Will Ferrell along with Justin and Hailey Bieber and Sia – it’s easy to think that LAFC are all about flair.

But they’re not, really. Cherundolo’s team finished just 10th in the MLS regular season in possession. They also finished with just the 16th highest passing completion percentage in the regular season. LAFC can beat you with possession or they can beat you in the scrap.

That, folks, is how they beat the Philadelphia Union on Saturday: the scrap.

After coming into MLS Cup averaging a 82.6% passing completion rate, LAFC completed just 70.5% of their passes against the Union. That’s a massive decrease. They didn’t really seek out many sustained possession sequences, instead choosing to give the ball to their opponents and attack vertically. LAFC’s attacking success in open-play was limited, to say the least. But their aggression, hard work in the midfield, and composure in penalty kicks even after a change in goal all point to a team that is built for chaos.

McCarthy, LAFC’s backup goalkeeper, might embody his team’s chaotic streak better than anyone else. A Philadelphia native, McCarthy signed with the Union in 2015. Seven years later, he signed for LAFC as a free agent and made two huge saves in a shootout against his former team. The first came against Martinez and the second against Union left back Kai Wagner.

On a team with stars known across the world, it was a 30-year-old backup goalkeeper who played for the Rochester Rhinos and the Ocean City Nor’easters before signing an MLS contract who came up big at the end of MLS Cup.

“I haven’t lifted a trophy since I was 15 years old at Northeast Catholic. I was with a bunch of goofballs from Philly just playing soccer.”

After a slew of game-changing set pieces, a legendary goal from Bale, and some big-time saves, McCarthy – and LAFC – have what they’ve been looking for since they arrived in MLS: the MLS Cup trophy.