Philadelphia Union's agonising MLS Cup defeat a sad end to stellar season

LOS ANGELES -- How do you come back from heartbreak like that? The Philadelphia Union fought back from 1-0 down, then 2-1 down, to draw level with LAFC in Saturday's MLS Cup final. The visitors even scored a go-ahead goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time in the second half of extra time, only to concede in the game's dying breaths.

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With the hosts forced to introduce backup goalkeeper John McCarthy after No. 1 Maxime Crepeau was red-carded and then carted off the pitch with a horrific-looking leg injury, it looked like it was all coming together for Philadelphia as the game headed to penalties. And then McCarthy, born in Philadelphia and a former Union keeper, went on to make two saves in the shootout to win the game's MVP award and ensure the home crowd got to witness their team lift MLS Cup.

"It's hard, man, right now it's really difficult," Philadelphia manager Jim Curtin told members of the media after Saturday's final. "I feel terrible for the players because they put so much into the season, into the game, and they're hurting right now and that's natural and normal. We'll try to have a beer or two tonight and have some kind of way to put a smile on each other's faces, because they did accomplish something pretty amazing."

Regardless of how this game ended, they did. Midway through this season, it looked like LAFC were going to run away with the Supporters' Shield and, in all likelihood, MLS Cup, too.

But while the Black and Gold suffered a late-summer swoon following the signings of Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini, Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello, the Union reeled in their rivals on the West Coast. Come the campaign's conclusion, Philadelphia finished level on points with LAFC, denied the Supporters' Shield by a tiebreaker -- Los Angeles had 21 wins to Philadelphia's 19.

In the end, it doesn't matter, but to give you a sense of just how good the Union were this season: They only lost five games all year; the next closest, LAFC, had nine. Their goal differential was another league best at +46; Los Angeles, with the second-best figure, was 18 goals worse off.

"I think that you can have a great season, but the season only ends perfectly for one team of the 28, and that's LAFC this season," Curtin said. "I think I've only said I've been proud of a group in a loss maybe two or three times in my career as a coach, and I'm still very proud of the team, we were as close as we could possibly be to our first MLS Cup."

It won't happen right away, there's still grief to process, but the Philadelphia coach alluded to it multiple times in his news conference: he's already thinking about next year and how to build off of this incredible season. The expansion draft is less than a week away, MLS free agency opens in 10 days, and decisions soon need to be made about which players will be sticking around in 2023.

"I think the most important thing here is to keep this group together, and that won't be easy because when you have success, people want a little bit more and then they're deserving of a little bit more because we have a great team and great players," Curtin said of the potential roster decisions the Union face in the coming weeks and months. "So I hope that we're able to keep this group together, maybe sprinkle in a piece or two that can provide some more depth and cover."

That will be easier said than done.

Midfielder Paxten Aaronson, 19, the younger brother of former Union prodigy and now Leeds United standout Brenden Aaronson, is set to sign for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, a source confirmed to ESPN's Tom Hamilton on Friday. Left-back and two-time All-Star Kai Wagner has been linked with a return to Europe for months, with a reunion with the elder Aaronson at Leeds most frequently rumored.

If both depart, a bitterly disappointing Saturday in November could snowball into an anxious offseason. However, similar things were said when Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie left for FC Salzburg and Genk, respectively, in January 2021. Since then, the Union have gone on to reach the Eastern Conference final and MLS Cup in consecutive seasons.

Major League Soccer has matured to the point that few clubs are singularly dependent on individual talents anymore. Philadelphia has demonstrated that it has the coaching prowess and the developmental pipeline to overcome any offseason losses, and return next season with legitimate plans on going one better.

"We're close, and we can win an MLS Cup, but just today wasn't meant to be," Curtin said. "I hope this group stays together for many years. I think we can make another run at this thing, but right now it hurts, and we'll have to regroup and handle the offseason."