LOS ANGELES – As euphoric as it was for LAFC following Saturday's thrilling MLS Cup penalty-kick victory at Banc of California Stadium, it was equal parts gut-wrenching for the Philadelphia Union.
Defeats don't come much more agonizing than the one Philadelphia endured, as the Union found themselves up a man and a goal with seconds ticking off the clock in the second period of extra time, only to see LAFC substitute Gareth Bale equalize in the 128th minute with one of the most dramatic goals in MLS history.
After the hosts prevailed 3-0 in the subsequent shootout to snatch the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy for their own, Philadelphia are now heading into the offseason wondering what might have been.
"It was a game that, you know, a deflection here or there for both teams and goals were going in. It was chaotic, it was end-to-end, a lot of emotion from both teams," Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin said in his post-match press conference. "It was what a final should be. I just feel terrible for our guys. Again, you know, it's one of those ones, I was going to say we'll rewatch it, but I don't know if you rewatch that one. I think I lived it through the 130 minutes and aged probably five or six years.
"It's a great game, and unfortunately we came out on the wrong end."
The match was defined by a chaotic sequence in extra time that immediately cemented itself in MLS lore, starting when LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau was sent off for a DOGSO red card after a collision with Philadelphia forward Cory Burke. The Canadian backstop also suffered a serious-looking leg injury on the play and had to be replaced by John McCarthy (later named MLS Cup 2022 MVP presented by Audi for his heroics in the shootout).
After Jack Elliott scored his second goal of the day to give Philadelphia a 3-2 lead in the 124th minute with the man-advantage, the Union were a matter of seconds from what would have been the club's first league title. But Bale sent the Banc crowd into bedlam with an unbelievable equalizer that set the stage for LAFC's victorious shootout.
"It was just really back-and-forth," midfielder Jack McGlynn said. "My emotions were all over the place. When we scored, then they scored, it was high and low. But obviously not the outcome that we wanted."
Bullish on the future
While the sting from the defeat is sure to linger in the coming days and weeks, Curtin said his team has much to be proud of when the dust settles.
There's no debate any longer as to Philadelphia's status as one of the league's elite clubs, coming off a regular season that saw them tie LAFC with 67 points (only ceding the Supporters' Shield on the total-wins tiebreaker), and post a gaudy +46 goal differential (second-best in MLS history). The Union very much have the feel of a sustainable operation, well-equipped to make a return to the league's biggest stage .
"You can have a great season, but the season only ends perfect for one team of the 28. That's LAFC this season," Curtin said. "So again, we, you know, think back to that last 3-3 game, this one is an incredible game. I think I've only said I've been proud of a group in a loss maybe two or three times in my career as a coach. And you know, I'm still very proud of the team. We're as close as we could possibly be to our first MLS Cup.
"...It's hard, man. Right now it's really difficult. I feel terrible for the players because they put so much into the season, into the game, and they are hurting right now. And that's natural and normal. We'll try to have a beer or two tonight and have some kind of way to put a smile on each other's face because they did accomplish something pretty amazing this year."
It remains to be seen how much of the club's core will return in 2023, but Curtin said his hope is they can keep it intact as much as possible, hopefully allowing them to build on the most successful stretch of the club's MLS existence. The Union won their first major trophy with their Supporters' Shield title in 2020, and exorcised another demon this year with the Conference championship over NYCFC after falling to the Cityzens in last season's Eastern Conference Final.
"I think the most important thing is to keep this group together," Curtin said. "And that won't be easy because, when you have success, people want a little bit more, and they are deserving of a little bit more because we have a great team and great players. I hope that we are able to keep this group together again. Maybe sprinkle in a piece or two that can provide some more depth and cover.
"But overall, you guys can tell, we are close. We are close, and we can win an MLS Cup. But today just wasn't meant to be. I hope this group stays together for many years. I think we can make another run at this thing. But right now it hurts, and we'll have to regroup and handle the offseason"
Added McGlynn: "I think for sure getting over the hump [of the Eastern Conference Final] is big for us. And I think next year we're going to come back and go for it all."
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