LAFC won’t know their opponent until late Wednesday evening, but head coach Steve Cherundolo already recognized the narratives and storylines that lie ahead.
For the sixth time in 13 years, the Concacaf Champions League final will be contested between teams from North America’s top two leagues – and this time it’ll occur roughly two months before the revamped Leagues Cup arrives.
“Liga MX, MLS and Concacaf got their wish. The tournament was planned out properly,” Cherundolo said with a chuckle Tuesday night at BMO Stadium.
The former US men’s national team and German Bundesliga defender was speaking after, for the second time in four years, LAFC booked a CCL final ticket. They’d just concluded a comprehensive 3-0 win over the 10-man Philadelphia Union, sealing passage via a 4-1 aggregate scoreline from this brewing rivalry between opposite-coast clubs. The defending MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champions, in a much-anticipated rematch, were simply better and more clinical across 180-plus minutes.
LAFC will now meet either Liga MX’s Tigres UANL or Club León when this year’s CCL final is contested May 31 (first leg) and June 4 (second leg). The former would present a rematch of the 2020 CCL final the Black & Gold lost 2-1 at a neutral-site venue, while in that same tournament they beat the latter 3-2 on aggregate behind a Round of 16 second-leg comeback for the ages.
Whoever emerges, LAFC have their sights set on more silverware.
“We are ecstatic to be in the final of this competition,” Cherundolo said. “It's a competition that was the highlight on our calendar, as well as MLS for sure, in the first half of the season. So far we've accomplished the goals that we've set for ourselves. There's one more to go.
“I can share with you that the atmosphere in the locker room right now is obviously a happy one, but also a focused one and a hungry one. This team wants to win a final now. We will watch with a close and tentative eye tomorrow who our opponent will be and do our homework and get the group ready.”
Before Tuesday's celebrations, LAFC carried an away-goals advantage thanks to Kellyn Acosta’s stoppage-time strike at Subaru Park last Wednesday (1-1 draw). But they also knew the job wasn’t done.
LAFC got to work: Timothy Tillman scored early, then late second-half tallies from Kwadwo Opoku and Dénis Bouanga iced the series. Of course, it helped that Union right back Olivier Mbaizo was shown a second-yellow red card in the 59th minute as the visitors were already chasing the game.
Cherundolo was purposeful when commenting on the difference between their Leg 1 and Leg 2 performances.
“Tonight, our performance in comparison to the other night I think was, in some ways for me, I'd describe it as being a little more professional and better managed,” Cherundolo said. “ … We were able to put the game on our terms and not Philly's like it was the other night.”
LAFC, in early June, could potentially raise a third trophy in eight months under Cherundolo. They won the Supporters’ Shield last October and MLS Cup last November, both over Philly, and could even host the crucial CCL second leg next month.
Regardless, LAFC are well-positioned to follow up on the CCL bragging rights Seattle Sounders FC wrangled away from Liga MX last spring. The Rave Green’s historic title, secured over Mexico's Pumas UNAM, offered a window into what’s possible in a continental club competition that’s repeatedly produced heartache for MLS teams in years past.
“Seattle paved the way for any MLS team that comes after them,” said Cherundolo. “They did that in a very disciplined and hard-fought manner. We'll try to do the same.”
As for any preference between Tigres UANL and Club León? Cherundolo made clear trophies are the greatest motivator of all.
“Whoever we play, we don't really care,” said Cherundolo. “We respect, obviously, our opponent, whether it's Tigres or León, greatly. They're both fantastic teams and it would be extremely difficult to beat either one of them.
“ … One thing I can guarantee you is our players will do everything in their power to win a trophy because they like it and they would like to make it happen here at LAFC.”