LAFC coach Bob Bradley: We had to be "smart enough" to overcome Club America's theatrics in CCL semifinal

Eduard Atuesta - protests call - LAFC

The hashtag #CCLFever often accompanies MLS euphoria or heartbreak in the Concacaf Champions League, but it also aligns itself with head-scratching moments that spark social media discourse, memes and disagreements.

The latter camp was on full display in LAFC’s 3-1 semifinal victory over Club America on Saturday night, which gave the Black & Gold their third straight win over a Liga MX side during the 2020 tournament. The 2019 Supporters' Shield champions are now 90 minutes vs. Tigres UANL on Tuesday (10 pm ET | FS2, TUDN) away from becoming the first MLS team to win the modern-day version of Concacaf's continental club tournament. 

The controversy Saturday began in first-half stoppage time when Eduard Atuesta was shown a straight red card after some dramatics from Las Aguilas goalkeeper Memo Ochoa. Atuesta appeared to have drawn a penalty kick, but Ochoa got in the Colombian midfielder's face as play advanced upfield and made it look as though Atuesta head-butted him as he stood up.

Addressing the incident in his postgame press conference, head coach Bob Bradley cast doubt over the referee’s decision.

“I've gotten a lot of text messages from people who have seen replays, from people who saw exactly who initiated the problem between Ochoa and Eduard,” Bradley said. “I've been told by many people that Eduard didn't do anything, so I've not seen it yet, but, man, I got so many messages.”

Watch: Eduard Atuesta shown red card vs. Club America

The altercations only escalated from there, with Club America head coach Miguel Herrera sent off at halftime after the teams got into a scuffle upon heading in for locker-room adjustments. Herrera then spent much of the second half with a walkie talkie in hand, giving instructions to the sideline and still trying to exert influence over the match. At one point, game officials had to usher Piojo further up the stands, which were otherwise fan-less because of precautions around the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Club America were shown a red card themselves, too, when Luis Reyes was sent off in the 79th minute after flying in with a studs-up challenge on Diego Rossi. That left the game at 10 men apiece, as LAFC were sparked on by a Carlos Vela brace just after halftime and a 95th-minute sealer by Latif Blessing.

While postgame media duties usually fall to the head coach, assistant head coach Alvaro Galindo appeared over Zoom to represent Club America. That capped an evening where Club America unraveled after taking a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute.

“The attempt to just use that as a way of trying to get the edge and the win, you got to be smart enough,” Bradley said of how LAFC handled it. “And we were saying from the beginning on our side, play the game, be smart, don't be naive and don't get caught up with all of the other stuff going on. So I can't speak to the rest, but I think our guys handled things well.”

Watch: LAFC, Club America get in halftime scuffle

Now, as LAFC gear up to face Tigres, Bradley turned nostalgic in assessing LAFC’s journey. They overcame a 2-0 aggregate deficit against Club Leon in the Round of 16 and rallied from one-goal deficits against Cruz Azul (quarterfinal) and Club America (semifinal).

LAFC could have crumbled under mounting pressure, smothered by the odds against their Mexican opponents. Bradley’s team instead navigated #CCLFever, leaving the 62-year-old to draw parallels to his time as US men’s national team head coach at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. 

He pointed to the USMNT’s memorable 2-2 draw against Slovenia in Group C, where they overcame some controversy to earn a positive result. That built into a group-clinching win over Algeria, so perhaps LAFC also have another level to reach against Tigres.

“I've been lucky with some different teams along the way where you remember these nights, you remember what it was like in a game where it seemed like you had no chance, but, man, everybody kept going and you didn't give up,” Bradley said. “I'm not going to bore everybody by listing some of those games, but that's a special thing. 

“If you want one, US-Slovenia and halftime. That was an incredible halftime where, you know what, a lot was said, there was a lot of emotion and we were determined that ... we were coming back in the second half. If they hadn't called back Mo [Edu's] goal, then that was a 3-2 win. But that mentality, when you've been part of teams that have it you keep trying to figure out how can we get this going with this group. We're seeing some good signs.”