Soccer doesn’t really lend itself to playoffs. It’s why league seasons and cup competitions are generally separate, and the latter are understood to just be goofy, random collections of games where just about anything can happen. As soccer games are still decided on maybe one or two moments, one or two moments that no team or man can ever truly control all the time, pinning one’s whole season to a do-or-die game is about as unfair as it gets.
Which is why most knockout games you see, such as the World Cup, are more often turgid tests of one’s patience or, indeed, pain threshold than they are exciting and memorable. Teams, terrified of those one or two moments going against them, do their best to make sure they never come around.
However, in MLS where nothing really has to make sense, the league is so bent on attacking and weighting their limited budgets to that side of the field, sitting back is rarely an option. So while MLS generally nullifies its entire regular season with its playoff structure, they usually do it in such a fireworks-show-out-of-the-bathroom-that-burns-the-whole-house-down fashion that few people really care. The MLS Playoffs are raucous, chaotic, mysterious and, much like wrestling, a roaring good time as long as you don’t stop to think about it too hard.
Their unpredictable nature is why it had been 20 years since the top two seeds met in the league’s final, as LAFC and the Philadelphia Union did yesterday. But rarely are the two top seeds so far and away the best teams. No one in the Western Conference was even in the same zip code as LAFC this season, and only Montreal for a brief time could even make a local call to the Union in the East. Since about July it felt like these two were destined to do this dance.
For the styles-makes-fights crowd, this final was tantalizing. The two teams were perfectly juxtaposed. LAFC loved to paint pastels with their passing and attacking play, dripping with creative players like Carlos Vela, Chucho Arango, Kellyn Acosta, and Denis Bouanga. They not only want the ball, they treat it with respect and admiration and show it the time of its life.
The Union abhor the ball. They don’t want anything to do with it until they absolutely have to have it. It’s the definition of a transactional relationship. Eventually the ball has to end up near and in the goal, and that’s only when Philly are around. They defend, they counter at pace, they get it up the field as quickly possible, and then they boot it into the net, more than any other team in the league. And then the Union and the ball separate again, with loosely scheduled appointments to meet again later in the game but barely any contact until then.
Widening out, the two clubs are run in opposite ways as well. LAFC are the glamor team now, the one who looked at the Galaxy across town before their existence–the Galaxy that had boasted Beckham, Ibra, Keane, Gerrard, whoever else — and said, “We can be bigger, better, slicker, cooler, and swaggier.” And then they were. This is the team that can sign Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, somehow, and then not feel like they have to play them all the time either.
The Union are far more aerodynamic. They scout well, they sell well, they’re not interested in splurging on anyone and when someone gets expensive they move them on and find the next one. There’s a rigid plan to how they play and how they build and nothing will dissuade them from it. Neither approach is wrong, because each landed the Union and LAFC at the final.
And of course, this being MLS, the two teams reversed styles for the match. The Union had more of the ball, thanks to their initial foray of launching high long-balls toward their dual strikers of Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre. That bypassed LAFC’s press and then the Union consistently won the second ball to establish possession behind where LAFC might have pressed gave far more of the ball to the Union than they ever have. The relationship went from transactional to bordering on personal.
LAFC’s glitzy frontline is always a threat on the counter, but also didn’t have a lot of speed to get into the open spaces. And both teams were clearly always coming to terms with the tables rotating on them, which led to a pretty frantic but sloppy game (41 combined fouls). These were two teams hurling themselves at each other but with weaponry they had rarely if ever trained with. Had a swordsman a mace and it’s going to look pretty awkward for a while as they mean to inflict the usual damage while more aware of taking their own face off.
Which is probably why the first five goals of the game came off set-pieces. Neither team could complete enough passes to forge coherent attacks in abnormal situations, while the constant stream of giveaways left defenses out of positions and gaps that could only be solved by hacking an attacker down before they could find the leaks.
LAFC took the lead on Acosta’s deflected freekick. The Union equalized early in the second half when off the reset of a freekick, Jose Martinez attempted a shot from 35 yards that had about as much chance as finding the target as a blindfolded sloth would have, ended up being the perfect through ball to Uhre. It was symbolic, as Martinez has been his usual defensive rock but a great majority of his passes and shots on the day had the same accuracy level as an attempt to throw pudding at a moving target.
LAFC would take the lead again in the 83rd minute off a corner when Jesus Murillo headed in, but the Union only needed another three minutes to equalize again off their own free kick thanks to center back Jack Elliot. Elliot would score again in extra time, after LAFC were down to 10 men after their keeper Maxime Crepeau was sent off for the denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity, and he had to be red carded while being loaded onto a cart after turning his knee into paste in the process. All of which led to maybe one one of the last great moments in Twitter history:
There was also the small matter of former Union keeper and Philly resident John McCarthy coming on for the dismissed and shattered Crepeau, in a banner week for Philly kids piercing the dreams of current Philly fans. The lesson being that if you want to experience joy as a Philadelphia homeboy, it’s best to turn on those who raised you. Even the Phanatic would admit this.
The Union should have found it pretty simple to see out the last six minutes or so with an extra man and an extra goal, but once MLS takes off the lid of its own personal Pandora’s box, you’ll never get the spirits back into it, once they’ve tasted freedom and the insanity they can cause. Bale, who had barely touched the ball since coming on as a sub, simply horsed Elliot for a cross to head and the game to penalties and sent chills down every USMNT fan because he’s likely to be just as inactive for most of that opening World Cup game, and yet will always be capable of something like this as long as he’s upright:
Insert Aaron Long for Elliot, change the color of the jerseys, and everyone can see it. We’ll save that for a couple weeks from now.
And of course the penalties came, where the Union didn’t make a one and were stared down by a former teammate. Because of fucking course they were. LAFC won the MLS Cup for the first time.
They are worthy winners, as they’ve been the class of the league since they showed up. It was MLS to the tee, distilled to its essence. It was two teams, much like the league, going hell bent for leather without worrying too much if at all about the necessary steps to do so, only focused on the end point. It wasn’t a great game quality wise, but it was the highest level of theater and drama as it bounced wildly between a demolition derby, a horse race, and the occasional attempted ballet performed by rhinos. No team in MLS is ever truly secure enough to lock down an important game and smother it out of life, and just about every MLS team has just enough invested in their attackers to always come back and make something come to life.
Is it the best way to go about it? Probably not. Is it wildly entertaining? You bet your ass. MLS will happily settle for that.