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This was the greatest MLS Cup ever

It may have been so good that it forces the league to rethink their playoff expansion plans.

Last Updated
4 min read

It’s rare that a championship game lives up to its expectations. It’s even more rare when it blows away our hopes and dreams. Yet, I think that’s probably the best way to describe Sunday’s MLS Cup, a match that featured the league’s two best teams slugging it out at one of the top venues in North America in front of a crowd as engaged as any you’ll see (outside maybe the Pacific Northwest).

From the jump it was a spectacle and it really only got better the longer it went. The 3252 tifo may not have had a clear message, but it was very impressive to look at and was undeniably enhanced by the flares and black smoke. The game itself was everything we hoped it would be, with LAFC jumping out to a lead only for the Philadelphia Union to tie it late early in the second half.

LAFC then took another lead late, only for the Union to equalize almost immediately and push the game into extra time. That’s where LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was red-carded for DOGSO, and picked up a potentially serious injury for his efforts. The Union eventually took advantage by scoring what was at the time the latest goal in MLS Cup history and seemed well on their way to securing their first title. Except Gareth Bale had different ideas. In the 128th minute, Bale rose over two-goal scorer Jack Elliott to score a header and send the game into penalties.

As if that weren’t enough, we got one more narrative treat that can only happen in a league like MLS. John McCarthy was the goalkeeper who replaced Crepeau in extra time. He’s a 30-year-old journeyman who has bounced from the USL to MLS throughout his career. In fact, he got his MLS start with the Union, his hometown team, where he spent four years mostly as a backup to Andre Blake.

Somehow it only made sense that McCarthy would outduel his much more decorated opponent in the shootout, stopping two shots and not allowing a goal as LAFC won 3-0. For his efforts, McCarthy was named the MLS Cup MVP.

I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that this was the best and most entertaining MLS Cup in history, delivering on just about everything anyone could have asked. I suspect it may never be topped in that regard.

That it also capped off a very entertaining MLS Cup Playoffs is probably giving the league — and Apple — a bit of pause before making the changes they are reportedly considering this week. I’ve said I think there are valid reasons to make those changes, but can’t shake the feeling that we’ll be regretting the change forever.

If one tweak must be made, I think it probably makes the most sense to simply add two more teams to the fold and eliminate the bye for the No. 1 seed. Yes, it theoretically removes some of the prize for claiming that spot, but I think it can be reasonably balanced by re-seeding after every round so that the No. 1 seed always plays the lowest-remaining seed. I’m also not convinced that the bye does the No. 1 seed much good as this was the first time in this format that either one had advanced to the final.

I know there will be some who decry what seems like endless MLS playoff expansion, but this at least provides some balance without dramatically changing a system that is at the very least entertaining.

Leyva is a player to watch this offseason

The MLS trade window opened on Monday for the first time since rosters froze two months ago. It will remain open until open until 9 AM pacific on Wednesday, at which point it freezes until after the MLS Expansion Draft on Friday.

This has not been a window where the Sounders have traditionally been very active and I don’t suspect that will be much different this year.

But one player to keep an eye on is Danny Leyva. The 19-year-old was just called into the United States’ U20 team to train alongside some senior players fighting for World Cup roster spots, but will find himself in a bit of a roster logjam next year.

Although Leyva acquitted himself well in a career-high 951 MLS minutes this year, he’s likely going to be fighting the likes of Josh Atencio and Obed Vargas for backup minutes in 2023. All three of those players need significant first-team minutes to continue their progression and barring an injury or two, I just don’t see how that happens even with the additional games from the Club World Cup, Leagues Cup and a deeper run in U.S. Open Cup. Chances are the starters are going to be two of Nicolás Lodeiro, João Paulo and Albert Rusnák.

I don’t know exactly how those currently three stack up on the Sounders’ depth chart, but Leyva might be the easiest to move either via loan or transfer. Leyva is eligible for both Mexican and Spanish passports — meaning he should have no problem moving abroad — and has the kind of skills evaluators in both those countries tend to find appealing. On top of that, I think his path to playing time with the Sounders might be a little tougher since he’s not quite as obviously a great pairing with any of the likely starters.

I would think the Sounders would also be willing to loan him out if they can’t get what I assume to be at least a seven-figure valuation for him on the transfer market.

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