By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 4, 2023) US Soccer Players – Technically speaking, the Concacaf Champions League semifinals went as expected, with both of the higher seeds, LAFC and Leon, advancing. Framing it in those terms risks short-changing the drama of the two series, and the difficulties Philadelphia and Tigres posed. These were four high-level matches that demanded top performances from the winners.
We already know that there will be a new champion on June 4. It’s the second trip to the confederation final for both LAFC and Leon. The reigning MLS champs lost 2-1 to Tigres in 2020, a one-game final held in a pandemic-imposed bubble environment in Orlando. “La Fiera” fell just short in the final phase of the 1993 CONCACAF Champions Cup, which used an unorthodox format of a four-team round-robin group for its final phase rather than an elimination bracket.
For LAFC, some see an additional layer of achievement to target. As MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield holders, defeating Leon could give the Black & Gold a claim to a treble that would be unprecedented in the history of Major League Soccer. The Seattle Sounders will always be the first MLS team to win the modern iteration of the Champions League thanks to their triumph last year. They did so at great cost to their domestic campaign, however, subsequently missing the playoffs for the first time and falling at the first hurdle in the US Open Cup.
The idea of a “CL hangover” has become conventional wisdom in MLS, thanks to the league struggles of others who made deep runs in the tournament. Not just last year’s Sounders, but also 2018 finalists Toronto FC and the 2019 Sporting KC side that reached the semifinals. Los Angeles has completely defied that track record up to this point.
Steve Cherundolo’s squad is the last undefeated team left in MLS and tops the Shield table on a points-per-game basis. LAFC is also tied for the best goal differential (+10) and goals against (six) in the league so far. Even accounting for MLS rescheduling games to help it and Philly focus on the Champions League, it’s been a highly impressive start to the year.
“I would still say that our roster is not as deep as it was last year,” Cherundolo said on Thursday. “But I would attribute the success we’ve had so far to (the fact that) every player, whoever it is, whoever we call on, has been fantastic when they’ve been on the field. And I think that obviously attests to their professionalism, their attitude, their mentality, but also the way we work here on a day-to-day basis at LAFC and our training sessions, trying to keep them as competitive, at a level as high as possible.”
The external praise has been even stronger. Union head coach Jim Curtin tipped his cap to LAFC after his team’s second-leg loss at BMO Stadium Tuesday night, a game that showcased LA’s combination of talent and relentlessness.
“If you look at the opponent, it’s probably the best team, you could argue, in our league’s history,” Curtin said. “So yes, they beat us. But when you are critical of my team, please have the caveat, we got beat by arguably the best team in our league’s history.”
Like Seattle in ’22, LAFC will host the second-leg of the final thanks to superior results in the previous rounds of the tournament. It’s scored 14 goals in the first three rounds and conceded just three. Aside from a few jitters vs Alajuelense while defending a three-goal aggregate lead in the second-leg of the round of 16 and Philly putting them under pressure in leg one of the semifinals last week, the team has rarely looked troubled.
That said, LAFC also has not yet had to face a Liga MX adversary on this run. Mexican clubs have traditionally fielded the tournament’s most tested and talent-rich squads. LAFC players who were on the 2020 roster can attest to those difficulties. The Black & Gold led Tigres 1-0 with less than half an hour left in that final at Exploria Stadium, only to be sunk by dramatic late goals.
Leon’s Nicolas Larcamon is one of Liga MX’s top young coaches. Like with his previous stint at Club Puebla, he’s built a sturdy collective marked by organization and versatility. With 13 goals allowed in 17 matches, La Fiera boasted the stingiest defense in this year’s Clausura, and they were deserving winners in Wednesday’s 3-1 second-leg victory at Estadio Leon.
“It was an interesting matchup again, both legs were fun to watch,” said Cherundolo of Tigres vs Leon. “Both teams are obviously great at what they do. Tigres has for sure some amazing individual players, and Leon is an excellent team. And I think what we saw from them last night and was more important, and which is the reason why they advanced, I think, was they were the better team. They have a clear way of defending, they understand what to do defensively, but also have a good idea of how to defend aggressively and to press. But also they can hurt you offensively on the counter. And they can also hurt you from building. So it’s a well-built team. Very few stars, but everybody’s important, and everybody works hard towards a common goal.”
There’s history between LAFC and Leon. The two clubs met in the first round of the 2020 CCL, where LAFC mounted a furious comeback from a 2-0 first-leg loss to win the tie 3-2 on aggregate. Leon then fell to Toronto FC at the same juncture of the 2021 edition before losing to Seattle in last year’s quarterfinals. Winning the 2021 Leagues Cup gained them a more positive international experience, if not of quite the same magnitude.
Early prognostications have LAFC marked as favorites to hoist the trophy, which still feels unconventional in and of itself. Should they prove those predictions correct next month, it would mark another shift in the balance of power between North America’s two biggest leagues. One CCL conquest after more than a decade of Liga MX dominance could be interpreted as a one-off. Two in a row might be more like a changing of the guard.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cboehm.
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