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Match analysis: LAFC 3–3 Philadelphia Union (3–0 after penalties)

Photo: Stephen Speer

This match analysis, of the Union’s thrilling but ultimately heart-breaking loss in the MLS Cup Final, is probably going to be difficult reading for many. As such, it will be as brief as it can be (which is not that brief, it turns out, so caveat emptor). And for those who can’t stomach going through it all again, here are the big takeaways:

  • The Union didn’t actually lose—these teams are so well balanced, neither has beaten the other since 2018. Penalties decided the winner, but that’s not the same thing.
  • José Martínez made some mistakes in high-leverage situations, which was very unfortunate, but scapegoating him isn’t fair. His sin was in wanting to do too much, rather than in losing his head or shirking responsibility.
  • Calling this game a choke on Philly’s part is wrong for several reasons.

Don’t mistake the following for an apologia for what was the biggest of gut-punches. It is, instead, an attempt to distill the facts of the game from a huge melting pot of emotional responses so that the future can be beheld with clearer eyes.

The shape of the game

While a minute-by-minute recounting of the match is unnecessary, it was surely a surprise to both coaches that the game played out as it did. The Union had more possession, attempted more passes, and completed them at a better percentage than did LAFC. That was not how anyone expected the game to go, but it speaks to how effective the Union were at dictating the terms of engagement. When the Union went behind, it was absolutely against the run of play.

In terms of scoring opportunities, the teams were quite evenly matched, with the Union outdoing LA from an xG standpoint (though mostly due to the point-blank nature of Jack Elliot’s second goal), but LA doing a great job of limiting Philly’s number of shots on target (they had only the three, which were all scored). There were multiple moments of last-ditch, in-the-box defending from LA’s center backs that prevented Mikael Uhre or others from getting shots away.

Andre Blake came up with some big saves, five in total, being called into action more often than usual. None of the saves he made were of the same breathtaking nature as against Alex Callens in the Conference Finals, and he had no chance on any of the goals, though he got the barest of fingertips to Gareth Bale’s tying header.

The goals

1–0: Martínez made a poor pass through the middle of the defensive third, rather than clearing the ball away, and was picked off. His attempt to recover and tackle resulted in a free kick outside the 18. Kellyn Acosta took it and it deflected off Jack McGlynn, who either flinched or was trying to head the ball, and the change in direction wrong-footed Blake.

1–1: Martínez, as always too eager to shoot, accidentally put the ball on a plate for Dániel Gazdag, who swiveled and coolly finished past Maxime Crépeau.

2–1: Martínez lost his mark on a corner and gave Jesús Murillo a free header.

2–2: Jack Elliott lost his marker on a free kick and powered home a free header.

2–3: A recycled Union corner was nearly put into his own net by Ilie Sánchez, and Elliott was there to bundle it over the line.

3–3: An LA throw-in was challenged by the Union, it bounced up into the chest of the onrushing Diego Palacios, which put it directly into his stride, enabling him to beat Olivier Mbaizo to the endline and put in a cross. Bale, matched up with Elliott, had the better angle to the ball and forcefully headed it home.

Six goals were scored, and each one required fortune or an error. Martínez will think long and hard about the first two LA goals, as he was directly involved in allowing them to happen. But, the first goal still required a deflection to go in and, if he is to be tarred for losing his mark on the second LA goal, then surely the same must be said for whoever was supposed to be marking Elliott for the Union’s second—not to mention their third, where Elliott found himself, somehow, again, in the right spot, with no defender near him.

It is, of course, the final goal, the Bale header, that seems to require the most scrutiny. Because, for all that had come before, the Union led, deep into stoppage time and up a man, yet found a way to cough up a goal.

What does it mean to choke?

To choke is to fail when you should be able to succeed—whether through error or incompetence, to lose when winning is otherwise assured. If one wishes to label what the Union did against LAFC as choking, specifically giving up the lead in the circumstances that they did, then one must point to the place where the error was made. It’s not enough to say, “They were up a man with three minutes left; giving up a goal is choking by definition.” Were LAFC simply supposed to stand idly by and let their chance at a championship go? Obviously, the answer is no and, in fact, they did all they could do and also had the benefit of fortune going their way.

On the throw-in, two Union defenders met the ball, and deflected it up into the air. The thrower had just arrived, running at pace, and the ball’s bounce took it square into his chest. As a result, he and the ball blew past everyone. Is there a version of events where the Union could have prevented this from happening? Sure, but that doesn’t mean that the actions they took in the real world were wrong.

Similarly, on the cross itself, Elliott was positioned to defend a low, driven cross. When the ball was, instead, looped up and away from goal, he was forced to backpedal to try and challenge the ball as it moved away from him. Meanwhile, Bale was well positioned to leap up and into the ball’s path. Again, there’s an alternate set of actions that Elliott could have taken that would have allowed him to get a head on that ball, but the choices he made weren’t wrong ones.

So, if nobody made a mistake, and the other team is trying everything, throwing caution to the wind, going hell-for-leather—choose your favorite cliché—how can it be said that giving up that goal was a choke? It wasn’t choking, it was a bad beat.

Final thoughts

There are some who have wondered why Jim Curtin didn’t sub an extra defender into the game after going ahead. While there’s merit to the idea of doing so, it wouldn’t have guaranteed anything, and the Bale goal wasn’t the result of tired legs (except possibly for Elliott’s, and he would have been in the same place, either way).

And what of the penalty kicks? Again, fortune went against the Union. Gazdag, so money from the spot, lost his footing as he took his kick. Who knows how things play out if the turf doesn’t give way? That Martínez’s and Kai Wagner’s kicks were poor is not up for dispute. But the vagaries of penalty shootouts are unrelated to the match itself, and an objectively unfair way to determine the winner of a game of such stakes. That was as true last season when the Union prevailed over Nashville as it was on Saturday.

In the end, while the loss was devastating, the Union must feel proud of their season, and their performance in the final game. They took the very best punches LAFC could throw, and gave their own haymakers back. Neither team yielded. The Union and its fanbase are left to wonder about what-ifs, like what would the game have looked like if they’d played it in Chester? What if Martínez had made just one fewer mistake? What if the ball had not bounced so kindly for Palacios or to Bale? What if Alejandro Bedoya had been fit?

Chances to play in, let alone win, games like these don’t come along often. That the Union were unable to capitalize on this one hurts, badly. They must use that pain as fuel to get back, right the wrongs of this game, and take home the MLS Cup they have shown themselves worthy of lifting.


  1. I agree with everything you say except on the Bale goal, you have to acknowledge that Paxten blundered by making a wild attempt to get the ball rather than retreating and giving Mbaizo cover. A veteran or more defensive minded player might have seen that play. Still, to your point, the ball still had to take the perfect bounce to hit Palacio in stride, he had to make a great first touch and then serve a sublime ball to Bale who timed a spectacular header in textbook fashion.

    The other thing I’ll add that having Burke go out probably hurt the Union more than the LAFC losing Crepeau. His late game energy has been everything for the Union the last 3 matches and the Union were lost without him. It forced Jim to put on Donovan where an alternative if Corey stays out there is bringing Real into the midfield and moving Pax up in place of Carranza who was totally gassed.

    Just a bad set of circumstances in front of an incredible hostile crowd that left no room for error.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I agree with a lot of that. Yes, Paxten did not make the optimal play. But a lot still has to go right for LA to score there. And I think your point about Burke is really true. Not only would he have helped on the field, but it’s likely he would have taken a PK, too.

  2. Micah Bertin says:

    Excellent analysis, great points. Big help in working through the stages of grief to get past the bargaining/what ifs and move closer to acceptance.

  3. While not knowing what or how guys play in training, why not Sullivan instead of Donovan ? Can play both up top and drop in to the midfield, has played more minutes (maybe not lately) with the team.

  4. Watching that Bale goal back…. It was a phenomenal cross from Palacios. Could not be better. And who on earth is better to take advantage of that ball in that spot than Gareth Bale? We had plenty of guys back and covering there. I can imagine if Elliot had bodied Bale there’d have been a pen. I dunno. It was a surreal moment of quality and doom. A deus ex machine that in a script would have been sent back for a rewrite for being too ridiculous to be plausible.

    • PaulContinuum22 says:

      Crazy ass stat; Bale was on the field from September until Saturday less than Zendaya’s on screen time in Dune (6 minutes vs. almost 7:30). 3 minutes to go, up a goal and a man; you can’t deny this team has had a tragic legacy of COME FROM AHEAD LOSSES. That by definition is a Bayern in the 1999 UCL final-level taking the collar.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        That stat is meaningless. Moreover, what does a cup final nearly a decade ago have to do with another from the weekend? Nothing – different teams, venues, eras, competitions, staffs, owners. But it’s easy to put them next to each other – unfortunately correlation is not the same as causation.

    • absurd to not have Bale double teamed for the last 4 minutes…even without the man advantage.

  5. Thanks for a great analysis, Jeremy. I’m proud of the efforts of the Union players and really enjoyed the season. Like many others, my wife and I were at the Subaru Park watch party. Hope the players know the support for the team was amazing. We were elated when the Union went up 3-2 but devastated when Bale scored the header.
    It’s a shame about the penalty shootout because it can go either way, and unfortunately it went bad for us. Felt really bad for Gazdag when he slipped on his PK – he was so solid all year. I was surprised – no, SHOCKED – to see Martinez as our #2 PK taker. Love his energy and he has his strengths but scoring goals is not one of them. Had a bad feeling from that point on.
    I haven’t rewatched the game yet, but some of the other match statistics seem one-sided. For example – Offsides. Union were called offsides 8 times. During the game we were scratching our head over some of these calls. Compare this with an aggressive LAFC, who was NOT called offsides at all!? Truly amazing! Also, the Union were called for 26 fouls compared with 15 for LAFC. There were plenty of times Union players went down but the referee had play continue. LAFC players whined about every bump, which seemed to work on the ref. I know Elfath was referee of the year, but some of those calls… When it comes to refereeing, it seems like it’s one more obstacle the Union has had to overcome all year.
    Some of the other comments on the site complained that the Union were cheap and should have spent like LAFC if they really wanted to win it all. I’m not sure being the biggest spender is a guarantee that you’ll win it all. Look at the MLB. The Mets were the #1 payroll, and they didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs. Phillies spent more than Houston, but that didn’t guarantee anything. Yes – the money is important, but you need a complete team (players, coaches, support staff, owners) – plus a little luck – to win it all. The Union were right there. They could have used a little luck, but unfortunately it wasn’t there. I know there will be changes but hope the Union organization can put the right pieces together for another run in 2023, and this time win it all!

  6. Had a great view from the upper deck and can confirm that in the first half LAFC’s mid block did a tremendous job of squeezing the Union – closing off passing lanes and causing lots of offsides. If they had stuck with it in the second half I’m not sure the game would have stayed so close. For some reason they dropped deeper and this gave the Union some life.

  7. The loss falls squarely on Curtins shoulders.Martinez ang Wagner should never have been among the 1st 3 to take Pks. NEVER ! Elliot made a pressure PK versus Nashville. Caranza was your second leading goal scorer. Never let the players make that decision on that crucial Point of a game. EPIC FAIL IN LEADERSHIP CUTIN.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Nah. The guys who took them said they wanted them. Any good leader listens to his men to get a read on things – starting with his best taker first. Plus, flip it around – you’d rather have had Martinez as the 5th taker? My lord, the amount of vitriol for that decision would’ve melted even this corner of the internet.

      • Wrong Chris Curtin Choked.

        as a leader Id much rather take the heat for the decision and let the consequences fall on me and not the the players. At that point in time Curtin needed to make an impartial cool calculated decision. The team was in a completely emotional crisis at that point of the game. vitrol shmitrol! Martinez is leaving soon and has not ever taken a penalty kick for the Union. Eliot has taken crucial PKs and was successful. (Nashville last year ) He had also already scored twice today. Caranza was your second best scorer. Aaronson also should have been among the first 3.
        Curtin is the leader of the team and he totally choked. The buck stops with him. In his true Harvey Milktoast fasion he choked not thew players

      • I’d call it an epic fail by Joe B for not rooting for the team hard enough. That makes about as much sense as any of that analysis of the PK’s. Why does it matter if Carranza is 2nd or 5th?
        Joe B choked as a fan.

    • I think a lot comes down to Gazdag’s slip. Not his fault. But for other players suddenly the pressure is on and the doubt too… “Just don’t slip!” It led to soft takes that were overly cautious.

  8. PaulContinuum22 says:

    I’ve no ill will toward anyone here, even those who keep telling me to GFM and ‘whine whine whine’. We merely have a difference of opinion on what happened and what I believe is going to happen. First, nobody but me, it seems, wants to accept the gulf of difference between our lineup and LAFC’s. Their last sub was Bale. Ours was CHRIS FREAKING DONOVAN. Not even in the Multiverse is that an equal tradeoff.
    Second, most of you have a rose-colored glass view of the future, that our academy is going to pick up the slack without skipping a beat. That we’ll get a free agent or 2. And then reality will smack them upside the head when they hear the salary offers that Sugarman tells Tanner and Curtin to present, they’ll nod their heads and leave. Sugarman makes Connie Mack look like Roman Abramovich in the payroll department.
    Third, IMO the Union have hit their peak and there’s nowhere else to go but down unless there is a sea change in the way this team pays its players, DPs and free agents.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Two things:

      If the Union’s peak is missing out on MLS Cup because of a couple of dice rolls, then I’m okay with that, because there’s nothing to suggest the game wouldn’t go the other way at least half the time.

      My main problem with your take isn’t that it’s wrong per se (though I disagree with it and it’s premise), it’s that if that is how you feel, then what is there for you here? Even if you are 100% correct about the Union, the financial situation and team philosophy isn’t going to change, so what’s the point of sticking around? Why come around here spreading anger and cynicism? It’s okay that you don’t like it. Lots of us do.

    • Within the last three years, the Union paid transfer fees to acquire Mikael Uhre, Julian Carranza, Daniel Gazdag, Leon Flach, Jose Martinez, and Jakob Glesnes. Six nailed-on starters, including two MLS Best XI players, on a team that was unquestionably one of the two best in MLS.
      With respect, the idea that the Union are or will be unable to acquire talented players outside the academy within their current framework has no basis in reality.
      And, frankly, comparing Bale and Donovan entirely ignores the context. Bale is a starting-caliber player coming off the bench because he has been injured. Donovan is a depth forward who would not have been in the game if Cory Burke, the actual reserve forward, hadn’t been injured. If your complaint is that the Union haven’t signed, like, Olivier Giroud to be the emergency option off the bench in a game that goes 120+ minutes… I just don’t know what to tell you.

      • Completely agree. I’m tired of reading about how we won’t spend money. The published salary list seems reasonable to me, not excessive. They are cautious, but paid decent money for transfers. Casper wanted big money, got it from Chicago and scored 5 goals for them.

    • Where have you been on this forum through all the years of genuine struggle? I feel like a relative noob and I’ve been posting here since 2014. We’ve seen this team accomplish something a lot of us probably never imagined. Sustained and sustainable success. If you just want to root for a winner that buys silverware, LAFC is for you. For me, it’s dull and distasteful. I am here for what the Union has done: The academy, the holistic roster build and creating a pipeline that right now is the model in this league. This is so much more important. This is a great team to get behind. It does everything the right way. When we do win another trophy, it will be all the better for how it was earned.

      • Although I am an Union fan, I disagree with your assessment of LAFC winning their title dull and distasteful because there’s no one way to build a champion in MLS (Considering how MLS Cup played out, how the hell can it be classified as dull). As we all know, MLS provides challenges that other teams don’t. If an MLS team wants to buy superstars, I have no issue with it – provided they’re doing it within the rules. I certainly won’t say LAFC did anything wrong. After all, they won a trophy.

      • I’ve been reading this page about the same time as Pete. I do recall many comments that weren’t very favorable about the Union’s model. Understandable since they were so mediocre. They are now, and within recent history, starting to spend to areas of need. The model has worked well with Tanner pulling the strings. My main concern, along with others here, will the model produce as well without Tanner? Teams that throw money can buy championships, in spite of front office flaws. Union’s model of truly sustained success seems so dependent on one person. Would the Union have been in the cup if Tanner wouldn’t have come to the Union? It seems when he leaves the model needs a like for like replacement.

      • @rashaad, I didn’t find MLS cup boring, but I do find collecting galticos dull. My least favorite team on the planet is PSG. I don’t think LAFC cheated or did anything wrong, but it’s just not the way I’d prefer to win. I know. Easy for me say. I don’t expect LAFC fans not to cheer for their team. I just prefer the model we have in Philly.

      • Fair points.

    • First, I have no ill will to you either, even though I’m guilty of making some of those comments (primarily due to seeing the same thing over and over from you). It’s more that being upset that the Union don’t spend on a level with some of the other teams is similar to having a window in your bedroom that faces east and being upset when the sun shines in your eyes in the morning. It’s just not going to change no matter how much you wish it to (although in the sun example you might be able to buy a shade to block the sun).
      I don’t think it’s fair to compare Donovan to Bale, given that he was an injury replacement. Compare Donovan to whoever LA would have brought in had Bale got hurt in a collision that took out Andre Blake. Now Corey Burke is still not Gareth Bale, but Burke did have a damn good season coming off the bench.
      The Union do have a track record of bringing in academy players successfully. Aaronson and McKenzie move on to Europe? No problem, the Union have 4 players who lead the U-20 national team into qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. Over the last 5 years the Union have one of the 2 or 3 best overall records in the league.

  9. I sure this is a great article. I am not ready to read post game summaries.

    Thank you Union for a great year

  10. PaulContinuum22 says:

    Nielsen: MLS Cup final drew 2.16m viewers, the best rating for the title game since 1997 and outdrew the LigaMX final a week earlier. Philly rating was 347,000 viewers for the game itself, 550,000 for the surreal ending.

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