León leads LAFC to regain MLS title in Mexico

Midfielder Lucas Di Yorio, right, celebrates with midfielder Elias Hernandez (11) after scoring a goal against Los Angeles FC during the first half of the second leg of a final soccer match in the CONCACAF championship, Sunday, June 4, 2023, in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Lucas Di Yorio celebrates his goal in León’s decisive CONCACAF Champions League final against LAFC. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

LOS ANGELES — When playing a two-set final, a lot of the strategy hinges on what you can do in 180 minutes, not just 90.

LAFC didn’t do well in Mexico when they traveled to Club León for the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final. Escaping Guanajuato with just a 2-1 loss felt like a win considering how poorly they played. Head coach Steve Cherundolo guaranteed the home performance for Stage 2 would be much better. In some ways it was.

But it wasn’t good enough. León took the 1-0 victory (3-1 on aggregate) to spoil the party in Los Angeles and bring home the material.

It was a complete disappointment for the Black and Gold, who were looking to repeat the success of the Seattle Sounders and become the second MLS club to win the tournament. But in those 180 minutes, León was the much better team.

The Mexican team knew LAFC were going to fire, but they soaked up the opening minutes with intense energy at BMO Stadium. It could have been a different story if Denis Bouanga had buried the golden chance he had two minutes into the game. Amid a cloud of smoke from the pre-match festivities, Carlos Vela sent the ball into the surfaced and Bouanga looked poorly timed and completely sniffled.

León wasn’t really bothered by a lot of things LAFC tried to put together, just waiting to separate the 3-5-2 formation that Cherundolo decided to roll with instead of their traditional 4-3-3.

They did just that in the 20th minute when Fidel Ambriz found space and sent Ivan Moreno into danger. He looked up, picked his pass and delivered a perfect through ball to Lucas Di Yorio in the box. It was a great warm-up play for the visitors that LAFC goaltender John McCarthy probably should have saved. Instead, he scooped the ball out of his net as the overall deficit increased even further.

It was a sign of what was to come for LAFC throughout the contest. Sometimes it’s just not your day, and anything that could go wrong for the MLS club did.

They weren’t much of a threat offensively, and despite Cherundolo trying to change the lineup midway to trigger something, LAFC was left empty. Over time, the odds were squandered. The sold-out crowd of 22,413 in attendance, which included a notable contingent from León, grew desperate.

In the 51st minute, Vela had a great chance with a free-kick to the edge of the box – one of those opportunities that fans anticipate seeing him place the ball on his left boot. But Vela hit the wall and then received a yellow card for a foul instead.

Shortly after, León supporters took over as the ‘ole’ chant echoed through the stadium. When Vela was substituted in the 63rd minute, those chants turned into boos. He was the LAFC captain, largely out of place throughout the Finals, mocked by Mexican fans who grew to love and hate him at the same time.

LAFC tried to put the pressure on in the final minutes, but the goals were elusive. Cherundolo and Co. saw the hope fade and the green shirts in the crowd began to celebrate.

For now, Seattle can breathe easy as the only MLS team to achieve this feat. As much as the league continues to progress, León outperforming LAFC is a testament to Mexico’s dominance of this competition. Liga MX has now won it 15 times against that of MLS.

Ahead of the game, MLS commissioner Don Garber said he couldn’t wait for two MLS clubs to be in the final next year.

Good luck with that.

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