By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 2, 2023) US Soccer Players – LAFC is still in it. That, and perhaps only that, was the positive takeaway from LAFC’s 2-1 first-leg defeat to Club Leon on Wednesday night in Mexico in the Concacaf Champions League final.
Denis Bouanga’s stoppage time goal was the crucial moment in a match that otherwise saw the defending MLS Cup and Supporter Shield champions struggle on the road. Leon’s performance called into question the notion that Seattle’s 2022 triumph in the region’s top club competition somehow broke the spell of Liga MX’s dominance in Mexico over MLS opponents in the Champions League.
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo recognized the value of that late goal in his comments after the game.
“It was a lifeline,” Cherundolo said. “This team showed a lot of guts to make a couple plays at the end of the game.” Saying his team was “lucky” to leave Leon down by a single goal in the aggregate series, Cherundolo noted that his team failed repeatedly to turn good moves into good chances.
“What we were missing all night long was just quality in the final third and the final pass. Our passing was some of the worst I’ve seen all season,” he said. “I’m very disappointed in our performance tonight,” he added. “That goal does give us a chance, but that goal alone does not help us win a final. The performances of every individual out there, the performance of the group as a group, needs to be much, much improved. I think the scoreline is extremely lucky for us.”
Club Leon, for all of its dominance, didn’t do enough to make it count. Confidence was high going into the final with LAFC primed to become the second MLS club to win a Champions League title in the modern era of the tournament, and in the process, claim the title as the best team in MLS history. Wednesday was a reality check.
Cherundolo spent the last month building up to the final. The MLS regular season was a simultaneous priority, though scheduling considerations helped LAFC manage the workload. Using the US Open Cup as a chance to use young talent and get minutes for reserves, LAFC arrived in Leon with a rested squad, minus a few significant names.
Midfielder Kellyn Acosta made the matchday squad for the MLS champions but did not feature. The US international is recovering from an injury. Defender Giorgio Chiellini, one of the most decorated players at his position in his generation, wasn’t fit to play in Mexico. LAFC also missed center back Jesus Murrillo, who was suspended for the first leg due to yellow card accumulation in the tournament.
The rested squad that was available needed 45 minutes to work back to its usual rhythms. The first half nearly undid the club’s chances at a title. Leon, which hadn’t played in three weeks following its ouster from the Clausura’s playoffs, looked sharper than its MLS opponent.
“Credit to Leon, they played excellent in the first half,” Cherundolo said. “We didn’t have answers for that. And so just backing up and receding and not defending forward has never been a successful way to defend. It’s never been the way we do things at LAFC and it’s certainly not something we plan on doing in the future, especially Sunday.”
The head coach’s comments about his club’s approach to defending speak to the defined identity built at LAFC. Notable about LAFC’s rise to the top of Major League Soccer has been its commitment to an expansive, swash-buckling style of play that entertains even as it helps the team win.
Whatever the history of the competition, there was no reason to doubt that this LAFC team was the favorite for the final. It’s tough to connect past Mexican supremacy in the Champions League to current events other than to say that top Liga MX clubs were generally better than top MLS clubs, and the results bore out that fact.
Seattle’s run to the title in 2022 upended the narrative that Mexican clubs were still well ahead of MLS and that their grip on the title was unbreakable. The Sounders threw everything they had at the competition and completed the task unfinished by three MLS clubs (Real Salt Lake in 2011, Toronto FC in 2017, and LAFC itself in 2020) before them. That seemed to mark a new era of competition between the two leagues.
The Sounders’ experience last season can be informative for LAFC as it returns home for Sunday’s second leg, though there’s a part of Seattle’s story that LAFC is missing. The Sounders, too, knocked off difficult MLS opposition in a semifinal. Seattle beat NYCFC 4-2 on aggregate in 2022, while LAFC took down Philadelphia 4-1 in the last round this season, before beating a Liga MX opponent (Pumas) in the final.
But Pumas was not Seattle’s first Liga MX opposition en route to the title. Two rounds earlier, the Sounders defeated Club Leon 4-1 on aggregate after staking itself to a 3-0 lead in the first leg at Lumen Field. That experience was invaluable for Seattle’s confidence on their way to the trophy.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer pointed to his team’s victory over Leon in the quarterfinal as a reason for Seattle to believe they could beat Pumas in the final. Schmetzer summed up his team’s feeling ahead of that series by saying the Sounders “understood” they could compete with a Liga MX team.
In the final, Seattle fell behind by two goals in the first-half of the first-leg in Mexico, only to pull even via two penalties by Nicolas Lodeirob before the final whistle. While LAFC didn’t get a second goal to level the score against Leon, Bounga’s tally makes the task decidedly less difficult in the second leg.
LAFC got its first taste of Liga opposition in this year’s tournament on Wednesday night. The performance wasn’t up to the club’s standard, but going home for a second-leg down a single goal represents a sort of victory.
With no away goals tiebreaker in the final series, LAFC needs to win the second-leg by multiple goals to prevail in regular time. The team is certainly capable of that.
Seattle carried MLS hopes in 2022, but the Sounders weren’t burdened with a firm expectation that they would win. Thanks to Seattle’s title and LAFC’s 2022 MLS success, that’s the situation for Cherundolo and his team.
“We are experienced enough, smart enough to bounce back,” Cherundolo said on Wednesday. “We’re also fit enough to put in a much better performance on Sunday. And this team knows exactly what’s at stake. And so I am 100% positive LAFC’s performance on Sunday will be much improved, and hopefully good enough to raise a trophy.”
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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