LAFC are 90 minutes away from making history.
Should Bob Bradley's team beat Tigres UANL on Tuesday night (10 pm ET | FS2, TUDN) at Exploria Stadium, they'll become the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League as it's currently composed. Three other MLS teams have reached this stage, but they've all fallen short.
Can the Black & Gold go one more step and beat their fourth Liga MX team of the 2020 CCL tournament? Faced with that question, MLSsoccer.com's Matthew Doyle and Tom Bogert assess the challenges ahead, tactical wrinkles and what's possible.
MATT DOYLE: I’ll start: Tom, I have no idea where to start. My entire brain is fried from the decade that this year has been. So do us all a favor and put into perspective the fact that LAFC have beaten three Liga MX teams – the current champions Leon, back in February, and now two of the traditional giants in Cruz Azul and Club America – to reach the Concacaf Champions League final.
And all three were comeback wins! They overturned a 2-0 deficit in the second leg vs. Leon, then turned a 1-0 deficit into a dominant 2-1 win against Cruz Azul, and then what’s already a legendary 3-1 win over Las Aguilas.
They are the first team to ever beat three Liga MX sides in the same CCL. My head is swimming. Does not compute.
TOM BOGERT: chsuuuh Piojo here on the walkie talkie, over chsuuuh
If LAFC win the damn thing, the image of Carlos Vela lifting the trophy will only marginally beat the image of Miguel Herrera refusing to leave the stands after getting a red card and talking to his staff with a walkie talkie. “That’s so Concacaf-y” might have a new profile picture.
DOYLE: So is this already legendary then? Was I right to use that word? Toronto in 2018, Montreal in 2015 and Real Salt Lake in 2011 all made the final, but they did it by winning multiple two-legged series. This is more like the old Concacaf Champions Cup – the forerunner to the CCL – with all of the games played in the US. D.C. United hosted and won that in 1998 and the Galaxy hosted and won it in 2000.
Does that take some of the shine off of LAFC’s run to the final, or does the fact that they beat Leon home-and-home, and then beat both Cruz Azul and Club America at a neutral venue make it ... something entirely different? A blend of the two?
Or is this no-questions-asked the first-ever CCL win (should LAFC actually win it, of course)?
BOGERT: It’s gotta be already legendary, right? I mean, what would have to happen in the final for this run to not be up there? Would a 4-0 Tigres rout take away from the first three games to get there? I’m not sure it would.
I think all three runs are in the same tier. We’re splitting hairs in trying to determine which was 1% better than the other, but I’d still lean LAFC given the hurdles 2020 is and the extra Liga MX opponent to get through. Or maybe it’s recency bias. That’s a possibility.
If they win, it’s the best. Simple as. I hate to be binary and Sports Radio RINGGZZZZZZ Guy here, but we’re not here for moral victories. We’re here for trophies.
LAFC overturned a deficit against Club Leon in the Round of 16, the same Club Leon who were first in Liga MX then and just won the Apertura (called Torneo Guardianes this year) last week. Cruz Azul had their problems heading into the quarterfinals, but it’s still Cruz Azul and LAFC thoroughly dominated.
The win against Club America in the semis? MLS teams simply do not win that game. They’ve never won that game. I still only kind of believe they actually won that game.
DOYLE: It was one of the most wild Concacaf nights I can recall, which is saying quite a bit.
But now let’s turn to the elephant in the room: How do LAFC avoid getting hammered by Tigres? You brought up the prospect of a rout, and that’s always entirely possible against this side. They have been the best in the region this past decade, and they won their previous two games 3-0 (over Olimpia) and 4-0 (over NYCFC). It kinda feels like this is the first time Tuca Ferretti, their legendary head coach, really cares about winning the CCL. He’s always sort of blown it off instead of going for it.
They’re going for it now, though, no question.
So what do you expect from Tigres, and what do LAFC have to do to actually take the final step and bring the trophy to downtown LA?
BOGERT: So I’d reject the original premise of “how do LAFC avoid getting hammered by Tigres” because when have LAFC ever allowed an opponent to dictate how they want to play? They’ll go out and play their football – as we heard Bob Bradley shout during the entirety of their win over Cruz Azul – against Tigres, same as they would in any MLS game or any previous CCL game.
If LAFC try to play cautious, try to defend more than normal or even draw a lower line of confrontation, it would be bad news. Like the old Spartan warrior saying: Come back with your shield, or on it. They’ll go for it, try to suffocate with coordinated pressure and unlock advantageous spacing/opportunities for Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. (This might be time for Brian Rodriguez to start in place of Danny Musovski for a super chameleonic front three, too.)
Eduard Atuesta’s likely absence hurts, and I only say likely because I’m unsure if they can appeal the very dubious red card he got. You’ve written/tweeted about how important he is to their game model. The good news is it’ll allow Latif Blessing back onto the field and his energy and disruptiveness will be a big boost. But Jose Cifuentes and Mark-Anthony Kaye excel in those free eight roles. Who can sit as the deep-lying playmaker like Atuesta?
How would you solve that? Also, you know much more about Tigres than me so I’ll defer those finer points to you. How do you see the tactical side of things going?
DOYLE: You’re right about LAFC never allowing anyone to dictate how they play, but that’s precisely what worries me. Tigres are entirely OK with letting the opponents dictate where on the field the game’s played, and at what tempo ... and then just eviscerating you on the break.
The defining attacking characteristic of their half-decade of dominance has been having the great Andre-Pierre Gignac as a massive, relentless target man with a second forward or advanced midfielder underneath (it’s a 4-4-1-1 and they don’t care about possession, so I think of it more as a second forward), and then plenty of speed and skill on the wings. If your fullback falls asleep for half a second, they’re off to the races out wide. If your winger doesn’t track back, they’re off to the races out wide. If your fullback pushes a bit too high, they’re off to the races out wide. When that happens, they are impossible to catch and damn near impossible to beat, because they generate chances and Gignac finishes everything.
Tigres took six shots vs. NYCFC (who played really well in the first half, I thought!). All six were on target, and four hit the back of the net. They completed only 85 final-third passes as compared to 177 for NYCFC. That kind of performance is not unusual. It is simply low-block-and-go, and it has been absurdly effective for a long, long time.
So I worry that LAFC’s identity, which involves pushing both fullbacks really high and integrating them as part of the attack, would leave them open to Tigres’s biggest strengths because those Tigres wingers do murder. That means LAFC have to dominate midfield, allow few turnovers and fewer transition moments, protect the fullbacks and get a lead.
Sure would be nice to have Atuesta for this one. There is no solving his absence like-for-like, as we saw during the regular season.
BOGERT: Agreed with the pitfalls and problem areas against Tigres, but I’d be more worried if they tried to deviate from their identity to defend in a low-block. Nothing worse than losing a final when you try to out-smart everything you’ve built.
Not that you were suggesting that, but if I’m LAFC, I throw my best pitch here with the bases loaded and a 3-2 count. Maybe Tigres sit on the fastball and cranks one into the gaps, but I’d walk away with my head high. (Baseball reference, no big deal, just a couple of sports guys over here.)
Plays into the mentality, too. I’m sure Bradley will be encouraging defiance. Yeah, we’re going to take the game to them. Why would we be worried about them? They should be worried about us.
We’ll have a lot of words here, but I think you succinctly pinpointed where the game will be decided: LAFC have to dominate midfield, suffer few turnovers (specifically the counterable kind; losing the ball when playing Rossi/Vela in behind is fine) and win transition moments, both in and out of position.
DOYLE: So now here’s the big question: What happens if LAFC win? Does this instantly become the biggest win in MLS history? Between what they did in 2019, with their record-setting Supporters’ Shield-winning season, and winning the CCL in 2020, are they instantly the best team in MLS history?
BOGERT: It’s great that you added “no dodging” juuuuuust before I started because I was about to one-touch pass that right back over to you.
I wouldn’t be able to call them the best team in MLS history without an MLS Cup. I know the chaotic nature of the playoffs is so, so cruel. I know it can be frustratingly random for the best teams, but you can’t be the best MLS team ever without a Cup, despite how incredible this feat could be.
It would put them in the elite bracket. Just can’t be the GOAT ... yet.
DOYLE: Yeah I don’t know, so I’m dodging the question.
What I do know is that their path to this point has been remarkable both because of who they’ve faced and how they’ve done it. LAFC have an identity and an ethos with regard to how they want to play, and that’s gotten them to within 90 minutes of the region’s biggest prize. The fact that they’ve managed that while developing young guys to sell on (it wouldn’t shock me to see Atuesta, Rossi and Rodriguez all bid farewell next month), and developing other guys from USL or the draft, and getting the absolute best out of Vela is remarkable. It is not an easy blueprint to follow, but it is indeed a blueprint to follow whether they win on Tuesday or not.
I’m picking Tigres though. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but the CCL’s the only thing missing from Tuca’s trophy cabinet, and the matchup dynamics are sort of Seattle-vs-LAFC-ish. Styles make fights, and counter-punchers knock LAFC out.
BOGERT: We all know free space is disappointment, so I’m setting myself up for disappointment: LAFC are gonna make history.
Hope is the most dangerous thing you can give a man.