Hollywood star power vs Philly grit: How LAFC and the Union built MLS Cup contenders with very different budgets
At the end of it all, LAFC and the Philadelphia Union got there. After absolutely demolishing all in their path during the regular season, neither slipped up in the playoffs, giving us a real heavyweight clash with MLS Cup on the line.
LAFC largely cruised through the regular season, coasting to a Supporters' Shield. And, on the other side of the country, the Union did the same, leading MLS with 72 goals scored and setting an MLS record with just 26 conceded while routinely beating teams by five or six goals.
But what makes this Saturday's MLS Cup final so interesting isn't necessarily the star power on the field (though there is certainly a lot of it). It's not the history that's set to be made with both teams vying for their first MLS Cup. It's not even the Hollywood backdrop.
What makes this Saturday's match so intriguing is the complete contrast of ideologies that have gotten these two sides here. Star power vs academy graduates. Big signings vs hidden gems. South American flavor vs South Jersey grit.
That's not to say that LAFC doesn't have that grit, or that the Union don't have that glamor. But, as we enter the MLS 3.0 era, both these teams have put in roots and built clubs in different ways. The results show that both were totally right.
For LAFC, that way was defined before they even kicked a ball. A true forward-thinking club that was determined to be big from the offset. Featuring a Hollywood A-list team of owners, LAFC came in hard with state-of-the-art stadium amenities, deep investment in analytics and, ultimately, a desire to bring in the players from the start.
And it's continued ever since. Carlos Vela was the club's first star, and still its most recognizable player, but they've spent the last several seasons building and tweaking around him to find the perfect formula. They've spent big on transfer fees and gotten some back but, through it all, they've stayed at the same level. Regular season success has been consistent, but postseason glory has eluded them, until now.
Vela is joined in the attack by summer signing Denis Bouanga, a multimillion-dollar acquisition from Ligue 1, and Chicho Arango, a 27-year-old Colombian star who has probably been the team's best player this season.
Then there are Giorgio Chiellini, Gareth Bale and Christian Tello, European stars that have been essentially unnecessary throughout this playoff run. And, in addition to all of that, LAFC have invested in young, high-upside foreign players like Jose Cifuentes, Diego Palacios and Kwadwo Opoku.
What LAFC does better than just about anyone in MLS is amass talent. They spare no expense in finding, scouting and, ultimately, signing that talent when the time is right. They're MLS' deepest team, so deep in fact that they can afford to loan 19-year-old defender Mamadou Fall, a player who would start on most MLS teams, to Villarreal midseason without missing a beat.
From big names like Chiellini and Bale right on down to MLS veterans like Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta and Maxime Crepeau (all starters brought in from other clubs) LAFC very rarely get it wrong. They swing big and don't often miss and, in this league, that is what keeps you successful.
That is in stark contrast to what's gone on in Philadelphia over the years, at least until somewhat recently.
In all honesty, the Union were the laughingstock of the league for quite some time. They made the playoffs just twice in their first eight seasons, including a run of four consecutive seasons without a postseason berth. Like LAFC, there were times where the Union tried to swing big, but those swings were met with laughably bad results. The name Rais M'bolhi still brings a chuckle from most that follow MLS.
At some point, though, the Union realized who they are and what they could control. They can never compete with the likes of LAFC or the LA Galaxy or Inter Miami for those big, marquee signings.
But what they could do is build from within.
Over the years, the Union have developed arguably the best academy in MLS. In a movement spearheaded by owner Richie Graham and sporting directors Earnie Stewart and Ernst Tanner, the Union put millions into building an academy that could develop legitimate homegrown stars.
And it's worked. Brenden Aaronson, now of Leeds United, came from that academy. So too did Mark McKenzie, currently playing for Gent in Belgium. Players like Jack McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan and Brandan Craig are next up.
However, it's not all the academy. What the club has also done is find undervalued, under-appreciated talent and bring them in. They've had a core led by goalkeeper Andre Blake and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, but the way they've built around that core has been essentially flawless.
Ready yet again to run through an Andre Blake (brick wall) after @AleBedoya17's huddle speech!!!#DOOP pic.twitter.com/e9UaYpZyNO— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) November 3, 2022
Kai Wagner, perhaps the best full back in MLS, and Leon Flach, a starter in every game these last two years, were found in Germany's lower divisions. Julian Carranza, a starting striker, was brought in from Miami on loan with a dirt-cheap option to buy. Midfield pitbull Jose Martinez was signed for cheap from Venezuela. Daniel Gazdag, a legitimate MVP candidate, signed from a mid-table team in his native Hungary while Jakob Glesnes and Mikael Uhre came from Scandinavia, a region that has traditionally been hit or miss for MLS teams.
These aren't your Bales or Velas or Chiellinis. These guys have no Champions League titles to their name. But they fit, almost perfectly, into what the Union can and want to do. Several will be sold at some point, some for a massive profit, allowing the Union to then bring in the next group of unheralded, but talented, stars.
LAFC are the sixth-highest spending team in MLS when it comes to total wages, although that number is a bit skewed due to their big-name signings coming in the summer. The Union spend the second least, with only the New York Red Bulls spending less money on salary.
It's a contrast of approaches just like it's a contrast of cities. Los Angeles has its Hollywood charm while Philly has the blue-collar attitude. The parallels between the cities and their clubs are there for all to see.
And, in this current era of MLS, both are model clubs for entirely different reasons. Both are examples of teams that do things the right way from the top right on down. They've both built incredible teams in entirely different ways and, ultimately, achieved similar results.
That is until this Saturday, when one lifts the trophy high. A clash of teams and a clash of ideologies awaits and, in this one game when everyone's watching, who will come out on top?