An unlikely hero ensures MLS Cup gets Hollywood ending

LOS ANGELES — Not even Hollywood finest could have written the script that played out Saturday in the MLS Cup title win for LAFC.

Headlined by leading men such as Carlos Vela, Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale, who are massive stars on their own, LAFC were heavy favorites against the Philadelphia Union as they entered the raucous stage of Banc of California Stadium.

With the backdrop of LAFC’s art deco crest and iconography across the venue that harks back to the golden years of the movie industry, the black-and-gold players and their Union opposition put on a performance that will go down as one of the greatest matches in the history of MLS.

Dramatic goals first stepped up as the protagonists. LAFC took the lead twice, only to be hit back by two equalizers from Philadelphia that sent the game into extra time. With a nervous energy that seeped from the pitch and into the stands, the match felt almost chess-like in extra time as both sides hoped to avoid mistakes.

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In the second half of extra time, the plot then began to careen off the tracks. Near the 110th minute, LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau sprinted off his line to stop Union striker Corey Burke, unfortunately leading to a horrific injury for the LAFC player and an ensuing red card for his challenge. With only 10 players on the field, head coach Steve Cherundolo was forced to bring on backup goalkeeper John McCarthy — a 30-year-old alternate with only a single appearance in 2022, which was a 2-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids in May that featured two goals off penalties.

So in stepped McCarthy, an unlikely hero in the spotlight and someone who just so happens to be from Philadelphia. Outside of perhaps some die-hard LAFC supporters, many MLS fans likely didn’t know much about the goalkeeper who was playing lower league soccer a few years ago.

With a roaring applause from the now-booming crowd at Banc of California Stadium, McCarthy stood tall in net … and then allowed a goal just minutes after entering the game. Initially saving a header, McCarthy then scrambled and failed to stop a rebound from the Union’s Jack Elliott in the 124th minute.

LAFC’s goalkeeper was devastated knowing that a championship could slip through his hands, but his redemption would still arrive. After Bale responded with a dramatic goal of his own in the 128th to make it 3-3, McCarthy would soon emerge as a restored savior in the ensuing penalty shootout for the championship.

“For 10 minutes or 15 minutes [it] was like a ‘Halloween’ movie,” Vela said in the postgame news conference about the events that were unfolding in the dying moments.

“And then we finished with a Hollywood movie.”

LAFC’s Cristian Tello stepped up first, but had his penalty saved. Then came Philadelphia’s Daniel Gazdag, who somehow skied his opportunity into the stands.

It was all LAFC and McCarthy after the bizarre miss from the Union. While Denis Bouanga, Ryan Hollingshead and Ilie Sanchez all scored for LAFC, McCarthy was impeccable with two invaluable saves that sent the crowd into a frenzy. With a 3-0 scoreline on penalties, the Los Angeles club closed out an astounding final through a breathtaking victory that handed them their first-ever MLS Cup trophy and a league double after previously winning the 2022 Supporters’ Shield.

The effort was immense from nearly all members of LAFC’s squad, but no singular player was more significant than the fairly unknown backup goalkeeper who stopped two penalty shots in the path to a championship.

With tears in his eyes as the Banc of California Stadium erupted into cheers and applause, McCarthy looked dumbfounded after being handed the MLS Cup MVP trophy.

“It still doesn’t make sense, it still doesn’t add up,” later said the goalkeeper in the post-game press conference while looking at the award.

Cherundolo was all smiles after the match when discussing the unexpected hero of the night.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better guy, John is one of the heartbeats of this team,” the head coach said. “John is an excellent goalkeeper, [he] could be a No. 1 elsewhere, could be a No. 1 for us.”

For an almost speechless McCarthy, still processing his emotions in the news conference, it became evidently clear how important this moment was for him.

“A dream come true, I haven’t lifted a trophy since I was 15 years old,” McCarthy said. “To be a Philly kid and play against my hometown team … it’s something special.”

Looking ahead, LAFC’s leading men and celebrities will once again steal the spotlight when the 2023 season comes around. Hundreds of thousands will show up to LAFC’s games at the Banc of California Stadium and venues across the country to witness the near-theatrical talents of Vela, Bale, Chiellini and others who are undoubtedly the names placed over the marquees and banners.

That’s the way of the usual football script, but Saturday night, the evening belonged to an unassuming lead character who rose as the brightest star on the biggest of stages in American soccer.

“Just a moment that you dream of as a kid,” McCarthy noted near the end of the news conference, MVP trophy in hand.

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