LAFC's Champions League final letdown leads to excuses and proof of Liga MX's CONCACAF supremacy

León celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating Los Angeles FC in the second leg of the CONCACAF championship final soccer match, Sunday, June 4, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

LOS ANGELES — Since Steve Cherundolo took over as LAFC’s head coach, there have been many great moments. Trophies, records, and a lot more wins than losses.

Sunday at BMO Stadium was supposed to be another one of those nights. The stage was set perfectly as they hosted the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, the biggest game in franchise history. A jam-packed stadium and resounding energy from the fans quickly diminished, though, as Club León hoisted the trophy and celebrated deep into the Los Angeles night.

The Liga MX players walked through the hallways after the game blasting music by popular Mexican artist Peso Pluma (who was in attendance) as they sang and flashed their championship medals. The cup is heading back to Mexico, where it typically resides.

LAFC thought they would be able to change that. And after watching the Seattle Sounders become the first Major League Soccer team to win the tournament last year, the thought was that MLS might be closing the gap on its Mexico opposition.

León said otherwise.

Not once did they look out of place, outplaying and out-coaching LAFC at every chance possible. The Black and Gold were actually lucky that the first leg in Mexico didn’t get out of hand, as León somehow only squeezed out a 2-1 victory. That left the door open and gave LAFC a bit of confidence.

“They could’ve scored four of five goals, but they didn't. They left us alive and now we’re home where it’s going to be different," LAFC captain Carlos Vela said before the decisive match.

The only thing that was different in Leg 2, however, was LAFC’s approach. With their backs against the wall, Cherundolo rolled out a unique formation hoping to gain more control. Giorgio Chiellini was thrusted into the lineup, playing his first game since April 8.

“This game is not about tactics,” Cherundolo said after the loss. “It’s about moments and mentality, and in the right moments León was better.”

At least that part is clear.

As a team that has grown accustomed to running through opponents, LAFC was underwhelming at the worst time possible. They never matched the energy of the moment, and that’s what stings the most for some.

“They were up to their best and we were not, it’s as simple as that,” LAFC midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “We are so sad because we earned the right to play the second leg at home in front of the best fans you can ask for, and we haven’t delivered.”

The other side of the argument is the never-ending debate about how the timing and scheduling of the tournament puts MLS teams at a disadvantage along with another glaring factor.

“As an MLS team, in tournaments like this, if you want to consistently compete in finals and win these, you’re going to have to rethink your roster rules and regulations,” Cherundolo proclaimed. “There’s a little more money on their side of the table, and money in this game buys quality players. I think we have a good enough team to win this tournament, but with our scheduling and all the competitions this year, we had a lot going on.”

That sounds like more of an excuse than anything, but there is some substance. Those obstacles have always been present and play a big role in why Liga MX controls this tournament. But Seattle showed it was possible last year. LAFC almost pulled it off in 2020, as well.

The structure of both leagues are completely different and will likely remain that way. For MLS teams, reaching these heights is a huge accomplishment. For Liga MX teams, not beating their U.S. rivals is basically considered a failure.

This final played out as finals frequently do in CONCACAF. LAFC is now left trying to recover, quickly, and shift focus back to league play while hoping to avoid a slump that many teams that make runs in this tournament have endured.

The Black and Gold want to be back on this stage, but they have to win either MLS Cup or the Supporters’ Shield, again, to do so. In between there is the Leagues Cup, which will offer Cherundolo’s side another opportunity to showcase their ability against Liga MX competition … or complain about the differences in roster construction.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 4: Head coach Steve Cherundolo of Los Angeles FC prior to the second leg match of the Concacaf Champions League 2023 final between Los Angeles FC and Leon at BMO Stadium on June 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.  Leon won the match 1-0 (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 4: Head coach Steve Cherundolo of Los Angeles FC prior to the second leg match of the Concacaf Champions League 2023 final between Los Angeles FC and Leon at BMO Stadium on June 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Leon won the match 1-0 (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

As one chapter ends, another one begins. One that will be pivotal to the future of LAFC. One that might force a tough decision on how to move forward with Vela after his contract expires at the end of the season.

If you take a step back, LAFC making it to the CCL final twice in just six years of existence is amazing. But having both of those end in defeats is ultimately what will be remembered until they change that. And it remains to be determined when the next chance will come.

Instead of a celebration that would live in club lore, León sent LAFC back to the drawing board.

“I don’t think that they are the better team,” Cherundolo said of the Liga MX side. “I just think that they were better for these two games.”

That first part is subjective. The latter is a fact.

And there’s a trophy to prove it.