LAFC fall to Club León, 2-1, but gifted a late lifeline

LAFC lost to Club León 2-1, in arguably their poorest performance in club history. But they're still contenders for the 2023 CCL title. Sunday’s second leg is at BMO Stadium.

Club León, in their first Concacaf Champions League final appearance, defeated LAFC 2-1 in the first of a 2-leg series that will determine who lifts the trophy. On Sunday, at BMO stadium, the home of LAFC, the MLS side has a chance to reply.

From the moment the whistle blew, LAFC looked stunned, frigid, and sluggish to react to León’s willpower, speed, fluid and transformational style of play. León was able to out-possess and out-finesse LAFC enough to score the first blow to the visitors.  After a 6th minute shot from Alfonso Alvarado that John McCarthy tipped wide, a corner kick from Angel Mena was headed into the net by León’s captain, William Tesillo, giving the hosts the lead in the 8th minute.

It was the first headed goal LAFC had conceded in a competitive match this year. León’s high-pressing tactics through the first half left LAFC on the back foot focused on chasing the ball, trying in vain to anticipate León’s quick and direct plays. At moments, it felt like the two teams were playing a different game – stylistically, there was no competition.

Pundits called it emotional football, something that we see in Liga MX game after game. Vela, immediately prior to the match, said LAFC needed to manage their own emotions to guarantee a scoreline in the 1st leg that could help the MLS club manage the damage done before returning to a 2nd leg at home. If emotional management was truly part of LAFC’s game plan, it certainly didn’t translate to their work on the pitch at Estadio León. After all, it’s not typical in MLS (aside from the occasional Cup Final).

The confidence of LAFC was deflating like a balloon punctured by the loud cheers and jeers of a home crowd that effortlessly drown out any Black and Gold chants. A merciful pause in play allowed Steve Cherundolo to do something he rarely does, intervene during a match. His tactical changes to Carlos Vela’s positioning in a few stolen minutes as Denís Bouanga lay clamoring on the ground for a yellow card on a studs-up challenge, allowed for a slight uptick in LAFC’s attack, but it was simply not enough to stymie The Wild Beast. León were rewarded for a Hollingshead handball after the 45th minute, and Mena easily converted the resulting penalty to make it 2-0 right before the break.

León, with 28 touches in LAFC’s box, superbly contained the action to the final third in that first half, almost without respite. It was the most LAFC has allowed in club history in a single half in any match. “Credit to Léon, they played excellent in the first half,” Steve Cherundolo conceded. “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 second half brought much of the same, albeit a bit more frenetically than before as LAFC attempted to claw their way onto the scoreboard. Their efforts failed. And, in the 92nd minute, Osvaldo Rodríguez seemed to deal LAFC one last gut punch sucking what air was left in their lungs. For a second the score was 3-0 to the La Fiera. Yet, instead, and controversially, LAFC were gifted a second chance.

The goal was rescinded, and with their last breath in extra time, their Golden Boot candidate, Denís Bouanga connected off a cross from substitute Mateusz Bogusz into León’s net. Not a moment too late. It’s his 7th goal of the tournament, and could very well be his most important. “It was a lifeline,” Cherundolo concluded in his post-match interviews. “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.”

The match was one of moments loosely woven into a chapter in a story for LAFC. Moments of lack of focus, moments of lack of willpower, moments of defeat, moments of luck, moments of chaos and moments of second chances. It was evident in every player’s face as the camera zoomed in. They’d not faced competition like this either ever, or not in a long time. But LAFC wasn’t forced to play under duress, they chose as individuals to relent to León’s lawless and fluid style.

They tried to play the game on León’s conditions, allowing the hosts to challenge them in 1v1 instances, slipping and falling repeatedly, chasing the game rather than having fun, forgetting to pass and connect with each other as a team. León played to their strengths, instinctive, raw and beautiful for being so overt. León dealt 7 on-target shots inside LA’s box (compared to 1 for LA). John McCarthy came up larger than life to save as many as he could. But, he’s clearly winded. It was humbling for anyone who doesn’t watch much Liga MX.

MLS fans likely felt debilitated watching a systematic dismantling of one of the best attacking teams in the league. At this point, LAFC can choose to respond to the emotions of this moment of adversity with courage, humbly accepting their weaknesses, and playing the next leg on their own terms, forcing León to yield to a more structured style of play, one that is smart but not predictable, a style that LAFC has been known to embody for years.

LAFC can harness their own passions and lean into their strengths. In order to score at least 3 goals on Sunday’s rematch to secure the title in regulation time, the 2022 MLS Cup winners will need to catch their breath, refill their lungs and collective balloon of confidence, play with the combined forces of their wit, passion and emotion, and not be afraid to think outside the typical passionless box of the league. After all, they’re contending for a title that’s outside that box.