John McCarthy celebrates with the Philip F. Anschutz trophy after winning MLS Cup. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
LOS ANGELES – Born and bred in Philadelphia, John McCarthy loves everything, especially sports, in the City of Brotherly Love.
Heck, he played for the Philadelphia Union for three years as an understudy for the great Andre Blake. He hopes that the MLS team does well.
“To be a Philly kid and play against my hometown team, it’s their first final, ever, in the MLS Cup, so it’s something special,” he said. I would root for them any day of the week besides today, and I genuinely mean that. There’s a lot of good people in that organization, and they mean a lot to me. From that aspect, they have a lot of meaning in my heart, but there’s something that the group of people there actually taught me when you cross a white line, doesn’t matter who you are playing against, you play to win.”
When push came to shove on Saturday, McCarthy, thrown into an unenviable situation when Los Angeles FC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau suffered a severe leg injury in the second extratime of MLS Cup, he had to focus on keeping his team in the game and find a way to give LA a fighting chance to win its first league championship.
He did it in the most spectacular way, making two vital saves during the penalty-kick shootout to boost LAFC to a 3-1 win in the tie-breaker after playing to a 3-3 draw after more than 120 minutes of end-to-end and many times nail-biting soccer.
“It was just a moment that you dream of as a kid, to play in a final … and then to play against a team that pushed us all the way until the last game of the season, to be in the final,” he said. “I wish it was against somebody else, honestly, because I feel for the team and the city because if it was against — if we weren’t in and Philly was in the final, I would for sure root for them.”
McCarthy, 30, was voted the unlikely MVP of the match. Let’s face it, back-up goalkeepers aren’t expected to play in most games. They are the least likely of all players to be utilized.
But McCarthy was ready to give it his all, even with short notice in what had become a tense encounter at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday.
During the shootout, he denied Jose Martinez and Kai Wagner on Philly’s second and third attempts.
“My mindset on penalties is the shooter has the best chance to score, actually,” McCarthy said. “The shooter has a higher chance to score than he does to miss or get saved. If I get scored on, I have four more chances. If I can save one, hopefully that’s enough to get a save and help the team. But I believe in a PK shootout, I will save one. I believe that I will give my team the best opportunity. I don’t have any doubt when I step on the field. Yeah, mistakes are made, but I believe in myself and the team that good things will happen.”
Bad things happened to Crepeau, who was forced to exit the match after his ill-fated challenge on Cory Burke.
“He made a big-time decision by coming out and making that play,” McCarthy said. “I’m absolutely devastated for him because it seems like it’s a pretty serious injury and he’s going to miss the World Cup. I don’t know the extent of it, but if you come out of a game in that situation, you’re not coming out for a Band-Aid.”
Crepeau is a member of the Canadian men’s national team.
Parading around the Philip F. Anschutz trophy in front of LAFC’s adoring and enthusiastic fans was super special for McCarthy, who hadn’t won a championship for quite some time.
“I haven’t lifted a trophy since I was 15 years old at Northeast Catholic [High School], he said. “I was with a bunch of goofballs from Philly just playing soccer. I had a final at La Salle, I had a final in Philly in the Open Cup.
“For you to say that I would hold that thing, it still doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up. I believed that I would lift a trophy one day. I didn’t know when or where but I believe that hard work pays off. If you would have told me that, yeah, I would have said it truly is a dream come true. I hope it does come to – yeah, I hope my dreams come true.”
On Saturday, John McCarthy’s dreams came through in ways a Hollywood script writer could not have conjured up.