LAFC celebrates its first MLS Cup triumph. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
LOS ANGELES – I’ve been to a few MLS Cups, so they claim.
So I would like to think I might have a pretty decent perspective of how all 27 Major League Soccer finals stack up.
Many of us, yours truly included, have contended that the very first championship game in 1996 was the best ever.
Who could argue with that assessment?
The game was played in the middle of a nor’easter.
Some 42,000 fans purchased tickets to the game in Foxborough, Mass and another 34K brave souls showed up and watch the confrontation, setting the table.
The LA Galaxy grabbed a 2-0 advantage and appeared to be heading toward winning the league’s first title until the magic feet of Marco Etcheverry set up three goals, including the game-winner in extratime. That sudden-death goal (yes, they had that vehicle back in those days) was scored by future U.S. international Eddie Pope, a rookie defender who had been commuting between D.C. United and the University of North Carolina at the time.
A legendary game.
Well, I think we’ve found one game that has exceeded that – on Nov. 5, 2022.
As you all know by now, the Los Angeles Football Club defeated the Philadelphia Union in an epic encounter at Banc of California Stadium. The hosts won the shootout, 3-1, after playing to a 3-3 draw in front of a capacity crowd.
According to FIFA rules, it will go into the books as a draw.
Conversely, it will go into the MLS record books as a championship triumph for LAFC.
An epic encounter and then some between the two best squads in the 28-team league.
Not only did both sides win their respective conferences during the regular season, they also survived their conference playoff battles as well. It was the first time in 19 years that the former had happened.
The game started relatively slow then sped up to something like 120 minutes an hour in the second half and extratime.
After a while, it was difficult to keep up with all the action on the field.
Both teams overcame one-goal deficits.
Philly defender Jack Elliott tallied twice.
Kellyn Acosta, expected to be named to the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup team for Qatar on Wednesday, scored the opening goal for the winners.
Gareth Bale, whom U.S. soccer supporters will hear more than enough when his Wales side plays the Americans in the World Cup on Nov. 19, scored the all-important equalizer to set up the shootout.
In the meantime, LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau ran into some personal double jeopardy in the second ET when he fouled Cory Burke hard while suffering a severe injury to his lower left. He was forced to leave the match for two reasons: the injury and a red card, leaving his team with 10 men and John McCarthy.
McCarthy, who was Philly goalkeeper Andre Blake’s understudy for three years and who had but 90 minutes and one league game under his belt this past season, was called on to backstop the visitors the rest of the way.
In the shootout, he saved two shots, giving him and his LAFC teammates a huge reason to celebrate with their fans and families.
As I wrote in my game story, what a Hollywood ending!
You can’t ask for more excitement, drama and entertainment than this.
No MLS Cup final has seen anything like the rollercoaster both teams had to endure.
When asked whether this was the best MLS Cup ever, Acosta replied “I feel like that’s subjective. But the game had a little bit of everything for sure: goals galore, going up a goal, going down a goal, scoring in the last minutes of the game, PKs. It was a roller coaster. It was craziness.”
Listen, I might be getting on in years and I might be set in ways. I consider myself a historian, but I certainly don’t live in the past, although I like to use it to put things into proper perspective,
As I sit in the Delta Airlines terminal awaiting my red-eye flight home to JFK, I have done some deep thinking about the MLS Cups I have had the privilege to cover over the years.
With all due respect to the 1996 classic and historic confrontation, which will forever be in my soccer heart, today’s contest set a new standard.
It was the best MLS Cup ever.
Can’t wait for MLS Cup 28, which will be one tough act to follow.