If you think of the two-leg CONCACAF Champions League final as a single 180-minute match, then it’s only halftime. And that makes León’s 2-1 win in last week’s opening game less a loss for LAFC than it is a challenge heading into the return leg Sunday at BMO Stadium.
In two seasons under coach Steve Cherundolo, LAFC has proven to be a second-half team, scoring more than twice as often as its opponents after intermission. A fifth of its goals in MLS games have come off the bench, further proving Cherundolo’s golden touch.
Plus on Sunday, LAFC will be playing at home, where it has lost only 14 times in 103 games in all competition.
So while León will take the field with the lead, Cherundolo’s team will have the advantage.
“I feel confident in my team’s ability,” the coach said after Saturday morning's brief training session. “If you want to raise a trophy, which we do, you have to win the game tomorrow. Our objective is to win. That’s where our mental state is. And we feel we have the tools to do it.”
But Cherundolo and his captain, Carlos Vela, made clear they won’t do it if they perform the way they did in the first leg last Wednesday. León, playing for the first time in 24 days, was on the front foot from the opening whistle and the team’s speed and aggressiveness gave LAFC fits, especially on the right wing. León also played wide, stretching LAFC’s midfield, and was dominant on set pieces, using corner kicks to score its first goal and set up its second.
“I think the most surprising thing about Wednesday night for our players was their performance. Just had a bad game. That’s it,” Cherundolo said.
“I don't know exactly the reason but for sure, we played — sorry about the word — but a s— game,” Vela added. “The only positive thing is we come here one goal down so we have to take that as a chance to play better football.”
“Any trophy is important,” he continued. “We work every day, we play a lot of games during the season, to be in this position. We are 90 minutes [from] a trophy and we have to fight until the end because it's the only thing we are sure we can do. Go hard, play hard, give everything we have. After that we will see if León or us [are] better.”
Collecting trophies is becoming a habit for LAFC, which last year became the second MLS team in 11 years to win both the Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup in the same season. A victory Sunday would make it the only MLS team this century to hold both league trophies and the CCL cup, the region’s most important club prize, at the same time. It would also mark the first time MLS teams have won the 41-nation competition in consecutive years; the Seattle Sounders won last year, ending a string of 16 consecutive victories by Liga MX clubs.
LAFC is already the only MLS team to play in the CCL final twice. It lost in its first try, in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the tournament to be played in a single-elimination format in an empty stadium in Orlando, Fla., robbing LAFC of two of its strengths: depth and home-field advantage.
“At home,” defender Denil Maldonado said in Spanish “it’s going to be different.”
But, he added, LAFC could surrender that edge if it panics or allows León to score first and double its lead.
“León has players with a lot of experience, a lot of quality, just as we do,” he said. “We have to be intelligent and not play with desperation.“
LAFC is fortunate not to be trailing by multiple goals already. A third León goal was erased in the first game when Osvaldo Rodríguez was called for a foul just before scoring in stoppage time, allowing Denis Bouanga to half the margin for LAFC in the dying seconds. That goal, on Bouanga’s only shot on target of the match, gave him a tournament-best seven scores in seven CCL games.
“It was a really important goal,” the French-speaking Bouanga said through an interpreter. “It was the end of the game and it was a goal that [closed] the gap between León and us.”
Closed the gap to a goal with the second half of the final still to be played at home, leaving LAFC exactly where it needs to be.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.