Davids vs Goliaths: scrappy Union face star-studded LAFC for MLS Cup

by Jacob Fuller

Jacob Fuller, FISM News           

There’s a lot more to building a championship-quality team than spending the most money, and the Philadelphia Union are proving it.

With a roster salary total of just $10.36 million, the Union has the second-lowest salary bill in all of Major League Soccer in 2022. With that, Philadelphia won the Eastern Conference and tied for first place in the MLS in the regular season. Along the way, they allowed the fewest goals (26) in a 34-game season and had the second-best goal differential (+46) in league history.

Now they’ve secured their spot in the MLS Cup Final this Saturday against big-spending LAFC in what will be a showdown between two teams that fit their cities’ perceived mold quite well.


It truly will be a Davids-versus-Goliaths scenario in the global soccer world when Philly and LAFC take the pitch to determine the MLS Champion on Sunday.

LAFC, who topped the Union in the regular season Supporters’ Shield standings via the total wins tiebreaker, have a roster value nearly double that of their MLS Cup opponents, coming in at just over $19 million this season. Three of their star players — Carlos Vela, Denis Bouanga, and Gareth Bale — combined for a little more than $7.207 million in salary, nearly 70% of the salary of Philadelphia’s entire team.

In total, seven LAFC players are guaranteed more than $1 million this year, with the three mentioned above bringing in more than $2 million each. Only two Union players, Jamiro Monteiro ($1.47 million) and Alejandro Bedoya ($1.02 million), are guaranteed seven-digit incomes through the team in 2022.

LAFC has built a roster of men who’ve played on the biggest stages for some of the richest clubs in the world. Vela, LAFC’s first big-name signing, starred for the likes of Arsenal in England, Real Sociedad in Spain, as well as the Mexican National Team before joining the MLS club. Bouanga played for top-flight clubs in France. Cristian Tello played in Spain for world-power Barcelona and, more recently, Real Betis. Giorgio Chiellini spent 18 years with Italian club Juventus — where he helped win nine-straight league titles and twice lost in the finals of the UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious professional soccer tournament in the world — before joining LAFC.

The real gem appeared to be Bale. One of the biggest world stars and arguably the most accomplished players to ever play in MLS — alongside the likes of Kaká, David Villa, David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Theirry Henry, and Wayne Rooney — the 33-year-old Bale joined LAFC in July after spending the last 15 years between English giants Tottenham Hotspur and Spain’s Real Madrid, where he was a pillar in four UEFA Champions League titles in five years along with teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.

The price tag for Bale was shockingly low. LAFC reportedly signed Bale to a 12-month contract in June, with options for another year, with a base salary of $1.6 million. The total compensation for this year with bonuses and incentives could reportedly total about $2.38 million. That might seem like a lot, except that, according to reports, he was the third-highest-paid player in Europe last year, making over $33 million while mostly riding Real Madrid’s bench.

However, Bale only played in 12 matches, started just two of those, and scored two goals for LAFC. He’s been, essentially, a non-factor to this point, and hasn’t played since Oct. 2. All the reasons for Bale’s lack of playing time in LAFC may not be public, but it is a clear sign of the sheer wealth of attacking talent on the LAFC team — and only LAFC — that they can afford to keep a world-class talent like Bale on the bench and continue to dominate opponents all the way to the MLS Cup Final.

And at this point, he is at the very least a substitute who is more than capable of providing the deciding moment on Saturday as he has before in the biggest moments on even bigger stages.

John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager, told the AP in August that money wasn’t an issue in Bale’s decision. That was key for LAFC, which already had all three Designated Player slots filled and was limited by league caps on the salary it could offer Bale. Preparing for his upcoming World Cup appearance for Wales was more important for Bale, who will likely star for his national team as it starts the tournament with a match against the United States in Group B on Nov. 21.

“It was being in an environment where he felt he could thrive and feel comfortable,” Thorrington said. “Where his family could be comfortable and put himself in a position where he could be successful in preparation for the World Cup and for the next few years of his career.”

LAFC has drawn such players to MLS with seven-figure contracts and the glitz and glamor of playing for a club in Los Angeles for a team with celebrity co-owners like actor Will Ferrell, NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, former USWNT star Mia Hamm, former MLB great Nomar Garciaparra, and self-help author and speaker Tony Robbins.

While LAFC has focused on bringing in well-established stars, its upcoming opponent has taken on its city’s reputation for hard work and resilience.

Philly builds from the ground up

Philly has carved its path to the MLS Cup finals with a completely different approach.

Philadelphia isn’t Los Angeles, and it doesn’t have the glamorous celebrity reputation that has helped LAFC and rival LA Galaxy attract global stars for years. Amongst the Union’s investors, only NBA star Kevin Durant is a household name, and he rarely, if ever, takes to the MLS spotlight that Ferrell and Johnson have often occupied in order to promote LAFC.

The first key part of the team’s championship run came when the Union selected Andre Blake first overall in the 2014 SuperDraft out of the University of Connecticut. The goalkeeper, now 31 years old, has since become a brick wall in goal for both the Union and the Jamaican national team. Blake was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year earlier this month. It was the third time he’s won the award in nine years.

The next big signing came in the form of veteran U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. What the now 35 year old lacks in flash and presence on the stat sheet, he more than makes up for in everything else. Bedoya is the midfield glue that links everything together, always seeming to be in the right place at the right time to link the defense to the forwards and trigger scoring runs. When Bedoya joined the Union in 2016, Philadelphia was in the midst of its fifth-straight season missing the playoffs. Now they’ve made the playoffs in four straight seasons and are headed to the team’s first MLS Cup Final.

More recently, Philly found goal scorers from far-less-prestigious European leagues than those which LAFC raided, as well as a steal in the MLS loan market. Mikael Uhre previously played in Denmark. He has 13 goals on the season. Dániel Gazdag spent several years playing in Hungary. This season, he missed the MLS goal-scoring lead by just one goal, finishing with 22 goals and 10 assists on the season.

Julián Carranza, who is second on the team in goals scored (14) and assists (9), is playing for Philadelphia on loan from MLS rival Inter Miami, which received only a second-round draft pick in exchange for Carranza.

In the back, the Union has also built the best defense in the league, and that fact is not even close to debatable. Led by MLS Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes – another signing from a less-than-prestigious European nation, in terms of soccer prowess (Norway) – the Union gave up only 26 goals across 34 regular-season games. That’s a league record, 11 fewer than this season’s second-best FC Dallas (37), and less than half of the total given up by three other teams that made the Eastern Conference playoffs this year.

To build its squad depth, Philadelphia has focused on building its youth academy, and the results have been phenomenal. The Union has gotten more playing time from Homegrown Players this season than any other team in MLS. That includes 23 appearances from 19-year-old Paxten Aaronson, the younger brother of Brenden Aaronson, who also played in the Union’s youth academy before joining the senior team in Philadelphia.

The elder Aaronson first went to RB Salzburg in Austria before being sold to Leeds United in England earlier this year for $30.2 million. He is expected to be a key player for the U.S. National Team at this year’s World Cup in Qatar.

So, which team-building philosophy will be successful this weekend: the Hollywood star approach of LAFC or the scrappy workman tactics of the Philadelphia Union?

The Philadelphia Union and LAFC are set to face off in the MLS Cup Final on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 4 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on Fox and the Fox Sports app.