It was a quick walk to training, and Miguel Ibarra was already in playing shape, so he never thought about catching a ride or calling an Uber. It only took a few steps to realize his mistake.
Ibarra had just joined Club León, and while his previous club Minnesota United FC had passionate fans, it was nothing like this.
“Everybody just bombarded me. Security had to come and get me,” the former US international remembered with a chuckle this week. “I was so shocked when all that happened. I could barely walk anywhere. Knowing the love and all the support that would be shown to me and putting on the León shirt … it was a dream I had.”
The current Charlotte Independence winger specifically recalls squaring off with América and Chivas, and while LAFC’s Concacaf Champions League final opponent doesn’t have anywhere near the support locally or worldwide those two grandes have, it’s still a beloved team.
The city sits at the heart of a metro area with a population of more than two million, making it the fourth-biggest in Mexico after Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. Traveling LAFC fans can make a quick walk from the Nou Camp, which hosted matches in the 1970 and 1986 World Cups, to the leather markets near the bus station. The city has long been identified with leather and with shoemaking, with a large number of shoes produced in North America manufactured in León.
It’s also located a quick bus ride from Guanajuato capital, a UNESCO Heritage city and not far from San Miguel de Allende, a city popular with both Mexican tourists and American retirees.
MLS fans may be getting pretty familiar with seeing the green shirts of the “Panzas Verdes” – the green bellies, supposedly derived from the way tanners dyed hides as León started to become a leather producer. León won Leagues Cup in 2021 in a thrilling final against Seattle Sounders FC. They also squared off with the Sounders in last year’s CCL, falling 4-1 on aggregate in the quarterfinals. In 2021, they fell to Toronto FC in the Round of 16 and in 2020 saw LAFC put three past them in the second leg to advance from the first round 3-2 on aggregate.
While León have become a fixture in international competition, that hasn’t always been the case. Founded in 1944, the team started life in the professional ranks strong with four titles by 1956. But in the 1990s and 2000s, León found themselves an elevator team, regularly falling out of the top division and having to scrap their way back.
Grupo Pachuca’s purchase of the team in 2010 changed that, with the team going up two years later and staying there. Led by Rafa Márquez at the back and Mauro Boselli up top, with current Colorado Rapids goalkeeper William Yarbrough in goal, León became just the second team ever to become “bicampeones”, winning back-to-back short-season titles in the Apertura 2013 and Clausura 2014.
Under current president Jesus Martinez, the team has worked to continue that title-winning pattern, adding an eighth Liga MX trophy to their cabinet in 2020 and finishing as runners-up in both the 2019 Clausura and the 2021 Apertura.
Most of the players from the title runs have moved on, with León retooling under manager Nicolás Larcamón. Some fixtures, however, still remain. Winger Elias Hernandez is now a veteran presence and one of few players with a pair of Liga MX titles and a Leagues Cup trophy win on his resume.
Other players, like Ecuador attacker Ángel Mena and Costa Rica standout Joel Campbell, have been with León since 2019 and remember the battles with MLS squads well. And rising stars also have helped push León to the final, with Chilean forward Victor Dávila and Mexico U-20 midfielder Fidel Ambriz among the CCL goalscorers.
As he continues to push the team, Martinez also has kept an eye on the US market and not just to size up CCL and League Cup opposition. One of his splashiest signings was convincing Landon Donovan, whose name is on the MLS MVP award, that he’d enjoy life in León. The US and LA Galaxy legend played six league games and a pair of Copa MX matches with León, but fans turned out to see a hated rival turned beloved member of the local squad in the 2018 Clausura.
Whether it’s Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda, Yarbrough, Donovan or Ibarra, plenty of players with MLS ties have gone to León and understand their unique place in the Mexican soccer landscape.
“No matter where it was, people would say, ‘Oh, you’re Miguel Ibarra’ and show me a lot of love in those situations, knowing I wasn’t from there, they would make me feel comfortable,” he recalled.
LAFC will receive a much less pleasant reception when they enter the Nou Camp field Wednesday night for the first leg (10 pm ET | FS1, TUDN). While they won’t be playing Mexico’s most famous team, they will meet a team with a deep history in front of supporters who are deeply passionate about their local club.