A strange and painful year in North American soccer has served up one last enthralling matchup: Tuesday’s tasty LAFC-Tigres UANL clash in the Concacaf Champions League final.
MLS vs. Liga MX. Carlos Vela vs. Andre-Pierre Gignac. Bob Bradley vs. Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti. It’s a duel worthy of the occasion and – hopefully! – it brings us some joy before 2020 shuffles off into oblivion.
With their quality, depth and pedigree, Tigres are the favorites. But LAFC have more than a puncher’s chance. Here’s three questions that are key to the Californians’ hopes of making history.
Who replaces Eduard Atuesta, and how?
The Colombian’s exceptional technique, vision and ground coverage at the base of midfield is essential to his team’s way of playing, and his suspension for this match is made all the more galling by the cynical play-acting of Club America’s Memo Ochoa that inflicted it in Saturday’s semifinal. He’ll be missed against a team that controls the tempo as effectively as Los Felinos.
“Tigres is a totally different team. They have a nice way of playing, they like to manage the game,” was how LAFC goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer put it on Monday. “And we are a team that also try to manage the game and play the games our way. So I think it's going to be an interesting game.”
Or as his teammate Mark-Anthony Kaye put it: “I think the biggest thing for us is to give them a game they haven't seen.”
Eduard Atuesta has been LAFC's "sorcerer" this season | Inside the Audi Player Index
Latif Blessing and Pancho Ginella are the most likely to be plugged into his spot behind Kaye and Jose Cifuentes, though there’s no like-for-like, level-for-level replacement for Atuesta on the roster per se. Many coaches in this spot would tweak their tactics a bit to reflect that, perhaps by dropping MAK or “Cifu” a bit deeper.
But that’s not really been Bradley’s style at this stop in his managerial journey. I expect him to keep the throttle wide-open, business as usual – not that he let much slip in the run-up to this one.
“Still to be determined,” he said when asked about Blessing as Atuesta’s replacement. “But I like the way we played in the second half [against America, where Blessing and Ginella came off the bench and helped change the game]. And to be fair, when Pancho came on, he did a really good job when Cifu needed to come off. So we've got four guys that are all ready.”
Will Kenneth Vermeer come through?
The decorated Dutch goalkeeper was signed from Feyenoord last winter as both replacement and upgrade for Tyler Miller, now with Minnesota, but things haven’t gone perfectly to plan. Vermeer’s decision-making and shot-stopping have been inconsistent in 2020 as reflected by a lofty 2.00 GAA and a losing record in league play, where Pablo Sisniega actually started more games than he did.
But Vermeer earned the job back in the fall and has been trusted in CCL, faith he repaid in part with a couple of clutch saves against America.
“I said before we began that Kenneth had started the year playing for us in Champions League against Leon, and we felt that it was right for him to be there as we finished,” explained Bradley on Monday. “Throughout the year the competition between Kenneth and Pablo, the way they support each other, has been fantastic. And everybody's excited for Kenneth.”
Vermeer will most certainly be tested by Tigres, who are unlikely to allow LAFC to stage the furious comebacks from early deficits they’ve performed in all three rounds to date. There’s absolutely no room for error between the sticks.
Can APG be stopped?
In Gignac, Tigres possess arguably the greatest all-around attacking weapon in modern Concacaf history. The Frenchman has been utterly dominant for most of his time in Mexico, particularly in big moments and most particularly in the Liguilla (Liga MX’s playoffs), and, despite talk of a slight injury, he will surely carve out some good looks in this game.
He’s the complete package: Big, strong, brave, cocky, clinical in front of goal with head and feet alike, adept at combining with teammates and driven to excel. Gignac’s produced at an absolutely absurd rate during his time at UANL, averaging upwards of 0.71 goals+assists per match, and loves to drift into dangerous spots around Zone 14, an area that could be problematic for LAFC without Atuesta.
With its high line and marauding fullbacks, Bradley’s system asks a lot of its central defenders and it’s been a thin spot for Bradley’s side since the offseason departure of Walker Zimmerman to Nashville. October acquisition Jesus David Murillo has been a solid addition alongside fellow Colombian Eddie Segura, making it easy to overlook that Tuesday’s final is only his ninth appearance in LAFC’s colors.
That duo will have to produce their best performance yet to give their side a fighting chance.