The 2-leg 2023 Concacaf Champions League Final series begins Wednesday as Liga MX side Club León hosts LAFC. Afterwards, LAFC will host Leon at BMO Stadium on June 4. While being 8-time champions of Liga MX, León are in their first CCL Final. LAFC are in their second.
Karmic cycles are regularly occurring phenomena in sports. LAFC is about to attempt to end one that goes back to 2020 with their first CCL competition. In that foray into the world of CCL, they became the first team in MLS history to eliminate three Mexican clubs, and the fourth to reach the championship match since 2011. In fact, one of those three Mexican club was the one standing in the way of the coveted North American soccer title now. But in 2020, LAFC were unable to defeat the fourth Liga MX opponent, Tigres UANL who, in search of their own first CCL title after finishing as runners-up three times, won 2-1 on neutral ground in Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium.
Despite the tournament historically heavily favoring Liga MX teams, LAFC have distinct advantages.
Experience: This is the third meeting between Club León and LAFC. During the 2020 CCL Round of 16, Carlos Vela netted a brace and Diego Rossi scored a much-needed late goal to give them a 3-2 aggregate come-from-behind rally after losing the first leg 2-0 at Estadio León. Some LAFC players from the 2020 CCL roster remain — Jesús Murillo (who will be out this leg due to yellow card accumulation), Diego Palacios, José Cifuentes and Carlos Vela. “Of course, the ones who were there, we know how hard it was to play in León, how hard it was to get not that bad a result. Because, in the end, I think that in the game we couldn’t lose like 3 or 4, and make it possible they come back when we play in LA.” Ryan Hollingshead, Kellyn Acosta and Aaron Long round out that veteran lineup with their own individual experiences in playing in the tournament with their previous clubs.
Rest without losing form: Club León haven’t played a competitive match since their May 7 loss (3-1) to Atlético San Luis. While that is a significant swath of time of rest, come at the cost of form. But LAFC, who have played 7 matches so far this month, and have been rotating their roster (heavily, when it comes to the intervening U.S. Open Cup matches in May). As a matter of fact, in one of his most decisive and divisive decisions. LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo chose to rest his senior team in their latest match, a home contest with their most vehement rival LA Galaxy. “We have obviously a fairly deep roster and very good players who don’t play every week,” Cherundolo said. “I think it’s in our best interest and the players’ best interest to use guys that are sometimes more fresh than others and, sometimes it makes sense to stretch guys and push them for another 90 minutes.” By doing so, he’s laid his cards out on the table. The loss to the Galaxy in USOC Round of 16 cost them a chance at what was likely an easier trophy to compete for and lost them some bragging rights. But it also meant their neighbors have a fighting chance at their own redemption in the face of what is arguably their worst season ever, internally, and externally. Good fences make good neighbors. “We have a very congested schedule. It’s unprecedented. Unfortunately for us this game came very close to a very important couple of games,” Cherundolo flatly stated in his post-match interviews.
Elite Power: “If we are lucky enough and win in front of our supporters, it will be the best gift we can give to them,” CCL Golden Boot leader, Dénis Bouanga.
LAFC’s elite power has been on full display this year. Dénis Bouanga isn’t just leading the CCL tournament in goal contributions with his 6 goals and 3 assists, he’s also scored ten times in 12 matches in MLS, ahead of players with more matches under their belts. He’s verbally quiet but his efforts speak volumes on the pitch as he accrues more and more media accolades with each goal. On the other end of the spectrum, Carlos Vela isn’t shy when it comes to his own priorities. “The important thing is we are in the final, we are close to get a trophy and we will fight until the end to get that trophy for this club,” Vela explains. “I just want to win. If I have to play 13 or 10 games, in the end, if I win, I will be happy. I will forget how many games I played.” He’s scored three times in CCL and added two assists. As his pace of production diminishes in league play, arguably his timing has become more accurate. Vela has just 8 goal contributions in MLS matches this season but either his goal is the winning goal, or more frequently, he has provided the assist for the go-ahead goal (3 times). Another consistent source power on their team comes from veteran, Diego Palacios, who not only was effective as a solid defender in their MLS Cup winning 2022 season, but also had one of the best passing rates. He continues his form by topping the club this season with his passes completed (459) and passes attempted (548) as well as total touches (814). There’s nothing meager about his contributions to LAFC’s continued high level of competition.
“I think we have something good with this group and with Steve -like we adapt or adjust the team depending on the moments or the situation – is something like many great teams,” Carlos Vela reiterates. LAFC have yet to lose a match in CCL this year. The confidence and belief that builds is invaluable. If they become the next MLS team to win the CCL title this time around, it doesn’t just add a trophy to their coffers, it solidifies an already-building legacy that lifts them to becoming one of the greatest MLS teams in history. The U.S. Open Cup will be another trophy for another year.