Outplayed all evening and for long periods completely overwhelmed by Club Léon in leg one of their CCL final clash in Guanajuato, the Black & Gold trailed 2-0 at halftime and were fortunate the scoreline wasn’t even worse. It was a humbling throwback to the not-so-distant past when MLS sides were routinely dismembered by Liga MX adversaries on Mexican soil in this continental competition.
“What we were missing all night long was just quality in the final third and the final pass. Our passing was some of the worst I've seen all season,” lamented head coach Steve Cherundolo afterwards.
“Credit to Léon, they played excellent in the first half. We didn't have answers for that. And so just backing up and receding and not defending forward has never been a successful way to defend. It's never been the way we do things at LAFC and it's certainly not something we plan on doing in the future, especially Sunday.”
LAFC’s luck appeared to run out as a jittery second half wound down, only for them to haul their trophy hopes back from the brink in half a dozen stunning, chaotic minutes of injury time.
Osvaldo Rodríguez looked to have landed a crushing blow for La Fiera in the 92nd minute. Soaring high above Sergi Palencia to direct a pinpoint Iván Moreno cross past LAFC goalkeeper John McCarthy with his shoulder, Rodríguez pushed the scoreline to 3-0, giving the reigning MLS champions a mountain to climb in Sunday’s second leg at BMO Stadium (9 pm ET | FS1, TUDN).
Or so it seemed. Guatemalan referee Walter López Castellanos waved off Rodríguez’s goal for a foul on Palencia, and a few minutes later the visitors swept forward, with none other than Palencia delivering a pretty low cross for Dénis Bouanga to sidefoot home, halving the aggregate deficit and sending LAFC’s traveling support into delirium.
From 3-0 to 2-1 in a matter of moments.
“It was a lifeline,” admitted Cherundolo. “This team showed a lot of guts to make a couple plays at the end of the game.”
His opposite number Nicolás Larcamón, while positive about his side’s “great game” overall, did not hide his disapproval of López Castellanos, alluding to “clearly wrong” decisions that “unfortunately had a very big impact on the final result” in a match his fluid, tenacious team could well have turned into a rout.
“Taking away those last minutes,” said the talented young Argentine manager, “I am left with very good feelings about what we are capable of doing on Sunday. We are a team that has competed very well every time we leave home, we have established ourselves very well in very difficult stadiums and against great teams, and this will not be the exception.”
Cherundolo, too, left no doubt that Sunday’s decider in Los Angeles will be a rugged duel, and called on his side to make vast improvements.
“I’m very disappointed in our performance tonight,” he said. “That goal does give us a chance, but that goal alone does not help us win a final. The performances of every individual out there, the performance of the group as a group, needs to be much, much improved. I think the scoreline is extremely lucky for us.
“But we are experienced enough, smart enough to bounce back,” Cherundolo continued about his reigning MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champions. “We're also fit enough to put in a much better performance on Sunday. And this team knows exactly what's at stake. And so I am 100% positive LAFC’s performance on Sunday will be much improved, and hopefully good enough to raise a trophy.”
With the away-goals tiebreaker not in effect for the final, LAFC will need to win at home by a margin of two goals or more in order to claim their first-ever CCL title in regulation time. A victory by one goal would lead to extra time and, if needed, kicks from the spot to decide the champion, while Léon can claim their first-ever Concacaf honor with a win or draw.
“The timing of having a performance like that is obviously poor, but the first half is played,” said Cherundolo. “There's a whole ‘nother game, and that's in Los Angeles. And like I said, we expect to bounce back pretty quickly and improve. And we will figure out and show the players what went well tonight, what didn't go well tonight, and what we need to improve on in order to beat Léon at home.”