So just how big is the task facing Los Angeles Football Club on Tuesday night?
The sheer scale of MLS’s tortured history in Concacaf Champions League can be seen in the sobering numbers: 59 teams entered over 12-plus years, 11 semifinalists, just four trips to the championship final, and not a single winner up to this point.* And lots of painful losses to expensively-constructed Liga MX opponents like Tigres UANL, LAFC’s adversary at Exploria Stadium (10 pm ET | FS2, TUDN).
(*Yes, D.C. United and the LA Galaxy both won CCL’s predecessor, the CONCACAF Champions Cup, a great achievement and worthy of the honor of regional champs, but of significantly different scope to what modern CCL poses.)
Even all that may understate the degree of difficulty.
To win CCL – even under the currently modified circumstances of a COVID-19-paused tournament being completed as feasibly as possible in a bubble situation in Orlando – teams have to be marathoners. You’ve got to be good enough for long enough in domestic play to qualify, then manage the subsequent rigors of a longer, busier season requiring greater depth to compete on multiple fronts across thousands of miles of travel.
You have to be able to maintain a consistent enough level to dodge upsets like the ones that felled the Seattle Sounders this year (CD Olimpia), Toronto FC last year (CAI of Panama) and FC Dallas the year before that (Tauro FC). You also must possess the quality to raise your game when facing talent-laden Goliaths like Tigres and Club America. And you need to be savvy and prepared so cynical hijinks like the ones pulled by Guillermo Ochoa on Eduard Atuesta on Saturday night don’t derail your campaign in the blink of an eye.
Watch: Eduard Atuesta's controversial sending off vs. Club America
Navigating all that is an achievement in itself, and LAFC deserve praise just for enduring to reach this point.
“I'm glad that all the guys stayed focused, despite how long and grueling this year has been, to really push it to the last minute and now get into a final,” Black & Gold midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye told reporters on Monday afternoon.
“The club has always had aspirations to be a top team on a global scale, and this final puts us within touching reach of getting there, so it's exciting. Finals are a different type of game and I'm just glad that this club gets to see one so early in its history.”
But now they have to become sprinters as well, in order to win a one-off match vs. a true elite, probably the most expensively-assembled side in the hemisphere. Thankfully, LAFC’s road to the final has already taken them past three Mexican heavyweights: Club Leon, Cruz Azul and Club America.
That’s probably the best preparation you can get for facing Andre-Pierre Gignac & Co. with a trophy and a trip to February's FIFA Club World Cup on the line.
“They're good teams, man,” said Kaye. “They're organized, they have very skillful players, I think just the talent level is very good. And I think they have a lot of game changers, guys on the team who can just create chances out of nothing.
“I'm just very grateful that we've had the opportunities to play all of them in this tournament, at least the ones on our side [of the bracket], and then getting to the final to play against Tigres. We knew from the beginning, from the draw, that it was going to be a tough task to get to the final – we were going to have to go through a lot of giants. And we have.”
LAFC are here because they survived Saturday’s absolutely surreal semifinal vs. America, though it cost them the services of Atuesta, their most influential midfielder, which further underlines the daunting challenges of CCL. With less than 72 hours to recover from that high-wire act, they’ll need laser-like focus, a stiff upper lip and a strong contribution from whoever replaces Atuesta, be it Latif Blessing, Francisco “Pancho” Ginella or A.N. Other.
The (un)luck of the draw hit the Californians with an arduous path through the bracket, and they found a way. They’ve also caught a break or two in the sense they are playing these games at the end of their season rather than the beginning, as it usually is for MLS teams. And the Mexican teams’ traditionally enormous home-field advantage, fueled by high altitude and hostile environments, has been blunted by a neutral-site, closed-door format.
For their part, Tigres carry their own club history of suffering in CCL’s moments of truth, having reached three of the event’s last four finals only to lose all three to different Liga MX counterparts. One of the most dominant players in Concacaf history, Gignac is a clinical finisher, a big-game player and a cutthroat competitor undoubtedly hungry to grab one of the few prizes that’s eluded his grasp in his incredible Mexican adventure – and he’s only one of many stars on Tuca Ferretti’s ferocious roster.
All that is now prologue. LAFC have 90 minutes to meet this challenge, and go where no MLSers have gone for two decades.
“That mentality, that focus on pushing it in a game and not letting different things take you away from what you're trying to do as a player or as a team, that's a big-game mentality,” said head coach Bob Bradley.
“When you're a player and you get a chance to be in a final, that's special,” he added. “Our preparation, our commitment to the way we play, our willingness to go on the field and play, to be a brave team that plays football, that pushes forward, that makes chances and plays at a fast tempo, I mean, this is what we're about.”