As the third year of LAFC’s competitive existence winds down, the Black & Gold are two games away from becoming the first MLS club to win the Concacaf Champions League.
They’re the last MLS team standing in the continental tournament’s 2020 version, and now await a semifinal Saturday night (10:30 pm ET | FS2, TUDN in US) against Club America at Exploria Stadium, the competition’s neutral-site host as games return nine months after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a lengthy pause.
Head coach Bob Bradley’s team is 90 minutes away from the final, and the significance of this stage isn’t lost on the former US men’s national team boss. The winner will advance to face either Tigres UANL or Club Olimpia on Dec. 22.
“When we won Supporters' Shield in 2019, obviously we were proud of the season and the kind of football that we played throughout the entire year, but we were also really excited about the opportunity then to get into Champions League,” Bradley said in the game’s buildup. “We've set the bar high at LAFC. We're a young club, we haven't done enough yet, but to really make history and to make your fans proud you've got to get into these kinds of events and you've got to take them seriously.
“And most of all, you've got to step on the field and go for it, play football that is different, play football that the fans are excited and stand behind. That becomes the way we try to go about it and as I've said in the opening remarks, we were pleased with the result and the effort against Cruz Azul, but man, we've got a big one coming up tomorrow night.”
Highlights: LAFC 2, Cruz Azul 1
HIGHLIGHTS: LAFC vs. Cruz Azul | December 16, 2020
LAFC beat Cruz Azul, 2-1, in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night, sparked by a Carlos Vela penalty kick and thundering volley from second-half substitute Kwadwo Opoku. The other matchups involved a second leg and aggregate score, while LAFC’s Leg 1 never got played last March and instead required a one-off game.
It positions Bradley’s team to potentially beat a third straight Liga MX team, having completed a memorable comeback over Club Leon last February in the Round of 16. They’re also riding momentum as compared to Club America’s 1-0 loss against Atlanta United in Leg 2, building the pressure on Miguel Herrera’s team after they lost the Apertura quarterfinals 3-1 on aggregate against C.D. Guadalajara.
Bradley doesn’t put too much stock into the teams’ form, though. Rather, he feels execution will be the differentiator.
“I say often that all of these different things get written, but what matters most is when the game starts, which team is sharper, which team is faster, which team takes the initiative,” Bradley said. “We want to be that team. To do it against Club America is a big challenge because they've got some really top players, but the different storylines don't matter when the game starts because the ability to get control comes from players that are really ready for the moment and that's the way we're preparing for things.”
Vela’s continued return to form gives LAFC another advantage, with last year’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP out for most of the 2020 season, first when bypassing the MLS is Back Tournament for personal reasons and then suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain.
The 31-year-old Mexican star spent his entire professional career in Europe before coming to MLS in 2018 as LAFC’s marquee signing. Now, having scored three of the Black & Gold’s five CCL goals this year, Vela has the potential to oust another Liga MX club.
“He has great respect for America,” Bradley said. “Obviously he knows so many of the players on all of the teams because he's that kind of guy, so I see him checking in with different players as we walk through the lobby of the hotel. But when we get in our group and he can just talk to our guys it's all about motivating and pushing everybody to be ready and play our football.”