For three minutes, Philadelphia Union fans in the stands at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles and in the stands and all over the field at Subaru Park in Chester were on top of the world.
Jack Elliott, among the unlikeliest of MLS Cup heroes on the pitch, had scored to give the Philadelphia Union a lead in the 124th minute of the match. The Union were a few minutes of stoppage time away from winning the 2022 MLS Cup.
I was in Chester at the time, watching as thousands of fans collectively lost their minds when Elliott’s header hit the back of the net.
To that point, fans had celebrated each and every incredible feat in a season unlike any other in team history. An undefeated season at home, multiple record-breaking blowouts and a new record for fewest goals conceded in a 34-game season. To get to their first MLS Cup final in franchise history, the Union had avenged a 2021 Eastern Conference final loss to NYCFC to lift only the second senior trophy in the 12 years since the club’s inaugural season.
I was in the building in 2020 when the Union clinched that first piece of hardware, the Supporters’ Shield trophy.
The stadium crowd that night was limited to just a few thousand and the trophy was as much a reward for navigating playing a shortened season during a global pandemic as it was a reward for dominating the league. But the feeling was still an unforgettable one. A team that had for years been mired in mediocrity had finally won something even if the subsequent playoff run was ended prematurely by a New England team that had been a too regular opponent in a regionalized schedule.
We were so happy to celebrate the Union winning something, we made a newspaper and were hoping to do the same for an MLS Cup.
I was thinking about producing another newspaper while trying to get into a good position to capture a good photo of the moment the full time whistle blew when Gareth Bale scored the equalizer. I didn’t even see the goal go in on the massive screen in the stadium but the reaction of the crowd was enough to make me realize what unfortunate thing had just transpired. Bale had been nothing more than a footnote up until that point but he did what he’s done for years on the biggest stages of the sport: score big goals.
That John McCarthy would be in goal for the penalty shootout made the strange twists of a game even neutrals have to admit was the best MLS Cup final ever played even more hard to believe. One minute I was picturing the headlines we would be writing and the follow-up stories we would write about the new MLS champions, the next minute I was realizing that a North Catholic grad would be the guy to crush the dreams of his fellow Philly fans the way an outfielder from West Chester had done two days before in the World Series.
What happened next doesn’t need to be rehashed any more than it has practically after every penalty shootout in the World Cup by fans on Twitter eager to troll Union fans. The throngs of fans in Subaru Park who were pondering when and where the parade might be only minutes earlier looked lost as they headed for the exits. Several stunned fans were still standing there like they were at a concert waiting for an encore that would never come. After three minutes believing Elliott had gotten the job done to a penalty shootout the equivalent of getting a tooth pulled fans had to cope with the reality that the one guy on the field from Philadelphia was the guy left holding both a trophy and an MVP award.
Whether 2023 is the year the Union will win the MLS Cup or not, fans can for the time being take comfort in the three minutes of bliss the best team in Union history to date gave us and a season that was as fun a ride as you can have without winning it all.