Best vs best: MLS Cup final pits LAFC and the Philadelphia Union

This season, the identity of the league's best team will be crystal-clear when the MLS Cup is raised Saturday.

Los Angeles FC's Carlos Vela (left) and the Philadelphia Union's Daniel Gazdag ((AP Photo/Jae C. Hong and Chris Szagola)

Los Angeles FC's Carlos Vela (left) and the Philadelphia Union's Daniel Gazdag ((AP Photo/Jae C. Hong and Chris Szagola)

Major League Soccer’s playoff system rarely rewards the league’s best regular-season teams with the championship celebration they would get in most other top domestic leagues.

This season, the identity of the league’s best team will be crystal-clear when the MLS Cup is raised Saturday.

Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union were the top teams in their respective conferences all year long, and they finished the regular season with identical point totals. They’ve survived the playoff gauntlet to play for both franchises’ first MLS Cup title in a rare instance of the best truly facing the best.

“I think it’s two teams that deserve to be here, the best two teams in the regular season,” Philadelphia captain Alejandro Bedoya said.

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For the first time in 19 years, MLS’ two conference leaders are playing for the title. They’ll meet at Banc of California Stadium amid the roiling, raucous fan atmosphere created for LAFC, which is seeking the crowning achievement to its half-decade of success since joining MLS in 2018.

“I said from the first day, this club is special,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela said. “This is a really good chance for us, for myself to do something good for them and get something back for fans, for the club, for families, for everybody that’s involved in this club. We have to enjoy it and bring everything, because it’s the most important game of this club.”

LAFC will attempt to become only the second team in the past 11 years to win both the Supporters’ Shield as the regular season’s top team — the championship standard in nearly all other top soccer leagues — and the postseason playoff trophy. Just seven of the league’s first 26 regular season champions also won the MLS Cup final.

Philadelphia and LAFC were the two highest-scoring teams in the league this season while topping their respective conferences and finishing with 67 points apiece. LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield because it had two more victories, but Philadelphia had a far superior goal differential.

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These two teams have reached their league’s pinnacle together by taking dissimilar paths. They’ve been two of MLS’ most consistently successful teams over the past half-decade, winning three of the past four Supporters’ Shield trophies.

Philadelphia’s foundation is built on the products of its innovative player academy, and the Union bolster their lineup with under-the-radar transfer acquisitions. The Union’s starting lineup costs a fraction of LAFC’s group, but under the innovative strategic mind of longtime coach Jim Curtin, they have built a durable core that fits perfectly into an aggressive style of play.

While the Philadelphia Phillies play in the World Series and the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles reign atop the overall NFL standings, the city’s scrappy soccer team is trying to grab its own trophy.

“Growing with the club since I (arrived) there in 2014, the club has really come a long way,” said Andre Blake, the Union’s star Jamaican goalkeeper. “I think the biggest thing is the culture has changed, and we are really more of a club that’s never satisfied. We always want to win. We’re not just OK with being in the league. We want to be one of those clubs that every time you talk about the MLS, our name pops up.”

LAFC has made a splash from its start with Mexican star Vela, but the club has made smart acquisitions from unusual spots across the globe to build a powerhouse roster. After missing the playoffs last season, LAFC roared back to dominance under first-year coach Steve Cherundolo, the German-trained native Californian who instilled a flexible, detail-oriented tactical mindset.

Vela has been solid as usual, but LAFC’s best player has been Cristian Arango, who has scored a whopping 30 goals in 51 matches since signing out of Colombia’s domestic league last year.

“We are in a position to do something good, to really say we made something special,” Vela said.

The Hollywood team with co-owners including Will Ferrell and Magic Johnson also landed two more major stars this year, signing Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and Welsh forward Gareth Bale at midseason.

While the 38-year-old Chiellini has been a solid contributor in central defense and a strong leader, LAFC has reached the final with a minimal contribution from Bale. The Welsh superstar scored two quick goals after joining the club, but he has played only five minutes since Sept. 18 and none since Oct. 2 while dealing with an unspecified injury, possibly prioritizing his fitness for Wales’ first World Cup appearance in 64 years later this month.

Just as he often was at Real Madrid, Bale is largely a hobbled spectator while his club chases trophies. Yet Bale also has a knack for delivering on big stages, making him a compelling factor in the MLS Cup final.

“One of them barely plays, but he’s a big guy, right?” Bedoya said with a grin when asked to evaluate LAFC’s big-name additions. “That’s a headline. But no, it’s a team that has incredible talent. We all know that. That’s no disrespect to him. He’s a fantastic player.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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