Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

Will the "real LAFC" be ready for Club León in CCL Final?


LAFC were a shell of themselves in Leg 1 of the 2023 Concacaf Champions League Final, leading to a 2-1 defeat Wednesday evening at Club León.

Take Steve Cherundolo’s word for it – and now the Black & Gold’s head coach expects an inspired response from his defending MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champions on Sunday evening (9 pm ET | FS1, TUDN) when hosting their Liga MX foe for the all-decisive second leg.

“I think the most surprising thing about Wednesday night for our players was their own performances, not so much León,” said Cherundolo. “We knew what was coming our way. There's plenty of video, there's plenty of documentation on how they play and how intense the game would be. None of that should surprise the guys. More or less, our own performances surprised us – just had a bad game at the wrong time, that's it. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Cherundolo similarly noted: “[León] also didn't see the real LAFC who was aggressive and on the front foot, playing better football and taking advantage of those small moments in the game. … We're hopeful that we'll put in a much better performance tomorrow and hopefully that will be enough to create the edge against León.”

Bouanga lifeline

LAFC allowed two goals before halftime down in Mexico, only for forward Dénis Bouanga to pull one back in the 96th minute and shock the Estadio León crown. Now, to lift the trophy, they must win by two goals at BMO Stadium either in regulation time or extra time. Should a stalemate persist, penalty kicks would ensue.

León put LAFC under siege for long portions, only to be denied by five saves from goalkeeper John McCarthy. Superstar and captain Carlos Vela singled out McCarthy in his preview conference, seeking a rebound performance more aligned with expectations.

“No one can say they played a good game. Maybe John, the 'keeper. He's the only one who was in a good level because he saved us some goals,” said Vela.

“I don't know exactly the reason, but for sure we play – and sorry about the word – but a s--t game. The only positive thing is we come here one goal down. We have to take that as a chance to play a better football, to play in LA with our fans and beat León. It's the only way to get the trophy and we are really excited, we are really focusing on starting strong, coming into the game with a good attitude and score goals.”

Bouanga said his late goal gives LAFC “hope” they can complete the job. And he very well may be called on again, supplying seven goals and four assists in seven CCL matches while dispatching Costa Rica’s Alajuelense (Round of 16) and MLS sides Vancouver Whitecaps FC (quarterfinals) and Philadelphia Union (semifinals) to set up this León meeting.

What will it take?

More than tactical wrinkles or individual moments of brilliance, Cherundolo stressed the need for winning small battles to create the difference vs. León.

“I can move the magnets on the tactics board around fairly well and I think I know what's going on in this game,” the former US international defender joked. “But that does not decide finals and that does not decide championships.

“Aggressiveness, the mentality, the will to win I think is what will decide tomorrow. That carries over onto the field, into the quality of play. … Grit and creating those moments and creating your luck is extremely important in getting this organization over the finish line. We were able to do it twice last year. We're looking to complete the task again [Sunday].”

Should LAFC complete the job, they’d lift a third title in roughly eight months. They’d also become the second straight CCL champion from MLS after Seattle Sounders FC experienced a historic breakthrough in 2022, a task LAFC couldn’t accomplish in 2020 when losing to Liga MX’s Tigres UANL.

In simple terms, there are regional bragging rights, prize money and spots in two upcoming FIFA Club World Cup tournaments (2023 and 2025) on the line. But the players don’t need any reminding of the stakes.

“We are in 90 minutes to get a trophy and we have to fight until the end because it's the only thing we are sure we can do – go hard, play hard, get all the chances we can and give everything we have,” said Vela.

Playing in front of the 3252 supporters’ group and a home-friendly crowd, LAFC are a confident bunch. It'll also help that center back Jesús Murillo and midfielder Kellyn Acosta are poised to return.

“I looked in the faces of my players today and yesterday in training – they'll be ready,” said Cherundolo.

He added: “Our objective is to win and that's where our mental state is. We feel we have the tools to do it.”