Vela: LAFC will "fight until the end" for CCL trophy vs. Club León

Vela CCL

If the chips fall LAFC’s way this week, the ascendant club will end it by raising their third major trophy in eight months.

They’ve already lifted the 2022 MLS Supporters’ Shield, clinched last October by Dénis Bouanga’s 95th-minute goal in a 2-1 win at the Portland Timbers. Then came the 2022 MLS Cup last November, secured on penalty kicks after a 3-3 draw vs. Philadelphia Union – sparked by Gareth Bale’s dramatic stoppage-time header in the second period of extra time. 

Now, perhaps, comes the 2023 Concacaf Champions League in early June.

To complete that title trifecta, the Black & Gold will need to start confidently Wednesday evening (10 pm ET | FS1, TUDN) when traveling to Liga MX side Club León for Leg 1 of this year’s high-profile final. Then, they’ll hope to complete the job Sunday evening (9 pm ET | FS1, TUDN) when Leg 2 shifts to BMO Stadium, with the winner decided on aggregate (no away-goals rule) and, if needed, either extra time or penalty kicks.

LAFC aren’t looking beyond this first test, but recognize the final’s cadence may favor them.

“I think it’s the perfect competition to start the first leg away,” said Bouanga, the 2023 CCL Golden Boot leader with six goals and four assists in six games. “And if we are lucky enough and finish and win in front of our supporters, it would be the best gift we can give to them.”

Added midfielder Timothy Tillman, who’s recently become eligible to represent the United States internationally: “We know about our strengths at home. We’re really good at home, we feel comfortable at home and we just want to have a good result over there [Mexico]. With a good result in the bag, we’ll go back home and have a good second leg.”

Top form

LAFC players, speaking Monday while applying the final touches on preparations, have reason to feel confident. They’ve lost just once in the regular season (7W-1L-4D) and are second in MLS on points per game (2.08), hardly missing a beat on last year’s league-pacing form. Nearly every offseason signing – highlighted by Tillman, U22 Initiative forward Stipe Biuk and US international center back Aaron Long – has made a significant impact, offsetting wintertime departures like Bale (retirement), 2022 leading scorer Cristian Arango (transfer to Liga MX’s Pachuca) and more.

All throughout, a championship mentality shapes the club. Carlos Vela, their captain and superstar attacker, outlined the approach.

“Honestly, it’s not about the tournament,” said the former Mexican international. “I think every tournament I play here in LA with LAFC means a lot because I wanna make history, I wanna win trophies. … We’re in a final, we’re close to getting a trophy and we will fight until the end to get that trophy for this club.”

Added Bouanga, who arrived last summer and holds Designated Player status alongside Vela: “In terms of the Cup, I really think we can win it. If we play the way we’ve been doing so far, I really think we can win the Cup.”

LAFC reached this stage before, dropping the 2020 CCL final to Liga MX’s Tigres UANL under far different circumstances. The 2-1 defeat unfolded just three days before Christmas at Orlando City SC’s Exploria Stadium and was held without fans as a precaution around the COVID-19 pandemic, abandoning the two-legged format for a one-off final at a neutral site.

Vela bluntly said that tournament “doesn’t matter” in the context of their 2023 run, nor does their Round-of-16 series from that CCL run. That’s the only time LAFC and Club León previously met, and the MLS outfit won 3-2 on aggregate behind a fast-and-furious comeback in the second leg.

This go-around, LAFC are approaching midseason form rather than playing before their MLS is Back opener. Both clubs have different players, and Club León, after finishing sixth in the Liga MX Clausura campaign, haven’t played an official match since a May 7 defeat (3-1) to Atlético San Luis in the Liguilla’s early stages.

This final series also includes LAFC first venturing to Mexico, specifically Estadio León. They may need to employ a bend-don’t-break approach in this first leg.

“Any time you go away to anyone else’s environment or to a hostile environment, it’s a big mental challenge to stay focused and not letting the game or the crowd get the best of your emotions,” said Long. “So just staying calm, know it’s a big game, but knowing there’s two legs to it and we have to set ourselves up for success in leg two.”

Added Vela: “I think the most important thing is to go there, play with confidence with the right mentality to get a good result. And of course, thinking we have another game. We have to be smart in that situation and don’t make small mistakes that can cost a lot.”

MLS: Back-to-back?

As for stakes, the winner gets regional bragging rights, prize money and spots in two upcoming FIFA Club World Cup tournaments (2023 and 2025). There’s also the broader framework of rival leagues, intensified by Seattle Sounders FC lifting MLS’s first-ever CCL title last fall and ending a nearly two-decade stretch of dominance by Liga MX clubs.

LAFC aren’t too concerned with those cross-border implications, though. This is merely just another chance to add more silverware, working towards a potential treble across the 2022-23 campaigns.

“I don’t know if it’s so much about us closing a gap between the leagues, but we definitely want to show that we’re a top team and we can win this tournament,” said Long. “… We know what we set for ourselves and we’re gonna go out there and try to win this thing.”

Added Tillman: “For me personally, I don’t really care about the past. But I also don’t think anyone in the club does. It’s just all about the moment now, all about the game now and, as I said, we’re ready to go hard, and we’ll do so.”