It lasted just a few minutes, accounting for just a fraction of a fraction of the playing time in John McCarthy’s seven-year professional soccer career.
His performance in goal in the final moments of LAFC’s MLS Cup win last November, however, has been life-changing.
“It’s like a dream thing,” he said. “The way it happened, how it happened; I’m not changing that dream. Winning is everything to me. So to be a part of that in such a crazy way. It was awesome.”
With LAFC and the Philadelphia Union tied and seemingly headed for penalty kicks with three minutes left in the second extra-time period, McCarthy was rushed onto the field after starting goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau fractured his leg in a collision with Philadelphia’s Cory Burke.
Before he’d even broken a sweat, McCarthy gave up the go-ahead goal.
But Gareth Bale rescued his teammate by tying the score deep in stoppage time, giving McCarthy a chance to become the hero in a penalty-kick shootout that would decide the league championship.
Penalty kicks are either a goalie’s worst nightmare or fondest dream. There is no gray area; you’re either the GOAT or the goat. Make a save and you’re the greatest of all time. Give up a goal and you’re walking off the field alone.
On this day, McCarthy, who hadn’t stopped a penalty try in seven MLS seasons, did not let a shot get by him and LAFC converted three of its four shots to win the title. That performance earned McCarthy more than just a ring — one he’ll get in a ceremony before Saturday’s season opener with Portland at BMO Stadium — but it also earned him game MVP honors and the starting job heading into this season, LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said.
“Right now,” he said, “John will start.”
McCarthy, 30, has started as many as a dozen games in a season just once in his career; just once has he opened a season as his team’s starter. With Crepeau sidelined for a couple of more months, however, McCarthy beat out Eldin Jakupovic, who last played in England, for the No. 1 job this year.
“It’s a big opportunity,” McCarthy said. “So whether I play one week, two weeks, 10 weeks, I plan on playing as much as I can and making the most of my opportunity.”
And, he added, he’s not thinking beyond that.
“I don’t think you can look past this weekend,” he said. “The final is in December. That’s our goal. But once you start thinking that’s where you want to be and that’s all you care about, you’re going to get caught up in missing the opportunity that’s just ahead of you.”
“Nothing changes,” he added. “It’s still day by day, game by game.”
Yet as much as McCarthy struggles to focus on the present, he can’t forget the recent past — mostly because people won’t let him.
In Philadelphia, where McCarthy grew up and spent the majority of his MLS career, friends still blame him for contributing to the worst fall and winter in the city’s sporting history, one that saw the Phillies lose the World Series and the Union and the Eagles lose in their respective championship games.
“A lot of my close friends were cheering for Philly. That’s who I would have cheered for any other day besides that day,” McCarthy said of the MLS Cup final. “So there’s no hate, no bad blood.”
Maybe not from his friends, but as the reigning MLS champion, LAFC enters the new season as the team everyone wants to take down.
“If there’s a target on our back, great. If there’s not, great,” McCarthy said. “It shouldn’t affect us in any way. We shouldn’t think of it any differently.”
For McCarthy, however, everything is different after last season.
“Yeah, I don’t think anyone could have written that,” he said of the final. “It was an awesome moment in my career. It’s got to be the top moment for sure.
“I hope there’s bigger and better to come. But to win an MLS championship is everything.”