LOS ANGELES — Since Steve Cherundolo took over as head coach of LAFC, there have been many great moments. Trophies, records and more wins than losses.
Sunday at BMO Stadium was 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 packed stadium and the resounding energy of the fans quickly waned, as Club León lifted the trophy and celebrated in the depths of the Los Angeles night.
Liga MX players walked through the halls after the game blasting music from popular Mexican artist Peso Pluma (who was actually in attendance) as they sang and displayed their championship medals. The cut returns to Mexico, where it usually resides.
LAFC thought they could change that. And after seeing the Seattle Sounders become the first Major League Soccer team to win the tournament last year, the idea was that MLS could close the gap on their Mexican opponent.
Leon says otherwise.
Not once did they look out of place, outplaying and dragging down LAFC at every possible opportunity. The Black and Gold were actually lucky that the first leg in Mexico didn’t spiral out of control, as León somehow only secured a 2-1 win. It left the door open and gave LAFC some confidence.
“They could have scored four out of five, but they didn’t. They left us alive and now we’re at home where it’s going to be different,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela said before the game. decisive.
The only thing that was different in Stage 2, however, was LAFC’s approach. With his back against the wall, Cherundolo deployed a unique formation in hopes of gaining more control. Giorgio Chiellini was thrust into the lineup, playing his first game since April 8.
“This game is not about tactics,” Cherundolo said after the loss. “It’s about times and mentality, and in the good times León was better.”
At least this part is clear.
As a team that has grown accustomed to running through opponents, LAFC was underwhelming at the worst possible time. They’ve never matched the energy of the moment, and that’s what stings the most for some.
“They were at their best and we weren’t, it’s as simple as that,” LAFC midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “We’re so sad because we won the right to play the second leg at home in front of the best fans you could ask for, and we didn’t live up to it.”
The other side of the argument is the endless debate over how the tournament schedule and scheduling disadvantages MLS teams, and another glaring factor.
“As an MLS team, in tournaments like this, if you want to make regular finals and win them, you’re going to have to rethink the rules and regulations of your roster,” 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 calendar and all the competitions this year, we had a lot to do.
It sounds more like an excuse than anything, but there is substance. These hurdles have always been present and play a big part in why Liga MX controls this tournament. But Seattle showed it was possible last year. LAFC almost succeeded in 2020 as well.
The structure of the two leagues is completely different and will probably remain so. For MLS teams to reach these heights is a huge accomplishment. For Liga MX teams, not beating their American rivals is basically considered a failure.
This final unfolded as CONCACAF finals frequently do. LAFC is now trying to recover quickly and focus on league play while hoping to avoid a slump that many teams making runs in this tournament have endured.
The Black and Gold want to be back on that stage, but they need to win either the MLS Cup or the Supporters’ Shield, again, to do so. In between is the League Cup, which will give Cherundolo’s side another opportunity to show off their abilities against the Liga MX competition… or complain about differences in roster construction.
When one chapter ends, another begins. One that will be essential for the future of LAFC. One that could 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 has reached the CCL Finals twice in just six years of existence, it’s unbelievable. But the fact that both of these events ended in defeats is ultimately what will be remembered until they change that. And it remains to be determined when the next chance will present itself.
Instead of a celebration that would live on in club tradition, León sent LAFC back to the drawing board.
“I don’t think they are the best team,” Cherundolo said of Liga MX. “I just think they were better for those two games.”
This first part is debatable. The latter is a fact.
And there’s a trophy to prove it.