MLS Cup: LAFC Beats Philadelphia in Dramatic Final

The final was the first since 2003 to match the two top teams from the regular season, and it guaranteed a first league title to the winner. Both teams, in fact, were playing in the final for the first time, and their matchup offered an intriguing clash of approaches, if not style: L.A.F.C.’s big-budget lineup studded with imported stars vs. Philadelphia’s more data-driven (and low-cost) methods, which had in recent years produced winning teams that mixed young academy products with reliable veterans.

The teams, at first glance, mirrored age-old stereotypes about their cities: L.A.F.C. brought the star power, in the form of Mexico’s Carlos Vela up front and the European championship pedigrees of Bale and the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. Philadelphia, meanwhile, offered a grittier, blue-collar alternative, a team by steadiness, not stars, and anchored by a strong defense that allowed the fewest goals in the league this year. (Philadelphia also quietly led the league in goals, resulting in an astonishing goal difference of plus-46.)

Its climb to the final had been methodical: a Supporters’ Shield in 2020, awarded for posting the best regular-season record, then a trip to the conference final last year (lost after a Covid outbreak decimated the team on the even of the game) and then this year’s run to the club’s first final.

L.A.F.C., in just its fifth year in the league, had been more hit and miss. Driven by Vela, it won the Supporters’ Shield in only its second season. But it missed the playoffs altogether last season — a difficult thing to do in M.L.S. — before rebounding to finish as the top overall seed again this year. It had actually tied with Philadelphia on points after the regular season, another clue to how little separated the teams, but had two more victories, and thus earned home-field advantage for the playoffs and, crucially, for the final.

The final also ensured M.L.S. would crown a new champion for the sixth year in a row. It took a while, but for L.A.F.C., the wait was worth it.