If you like your soccer spiked with a dash of travelogue, reality television, pantomime villainy and the occasional sprinkle of slapstick, the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football is the place to be. And the Concacaf Champions League is the one tournament you can’t miss.
And even by CCL standards, the nightcap of Saturday’s semifinal doubleheader at Exploria Stadium between LAFC and Club America was a wild one. If you weren’t lucky enough to witness it live, read my colleague Jonathan Sigal’s coverage and watch the video posthaste, because it was way too messy (and entertaining) for me to encapsulate here.
We’ve seen craziness in this competition before. What was different about this time compared to many other #CCLFever nights over the years was that the MLS team involved in it managed to survive – to thrive, in fact, to simply refuse to allow the crashing waves of chaos to wash them off the steep cliff they’re trying to scale. To follow through and bag the W in spite of everything.
The fact that it was LAFC, a young team and young club on their inaugural CCL voyage, and an outfit that have already stumbled in several big matches in their three short years of existence? That makes it extra impressive.
“In 2018 we lost in the semifinals of the Open Cup. Last year we lost in the [playoff] semifinals to Seattle. So we know what it feels like,” said a contemplative Bob Bradley after his team’s 2-1 victory. “And semifinals are the games where man, everybody feels the pressure and because you can get into a final, it's so special.
“And you could sense that our group, going into the game tonight and even at halftime, that whole idea that we were going to not stop, that we were going to find a way to get into the final, that was so clear, and that's the reason I'm so proud of these guys. And that's how you grow as a club.”
Different viewers with different sensibilities often draw differing conclusions from spectacles like this, full of fire and intensity, but also rife with gamesmanship, manipulation and deceit. These are murky, treacherous waters where all too many MLS teams have drowned, a huge factor in the league’s long-running inability to win CCL.
It looked like Bradley’s side would become the latest when Eduard Atuesta was baited into a controversial red card by the antics of Aguilas goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, who surely knew that VAR was not in use when he schemed to leave LAFC with 10 men on the stroke of halftime.
Watch: Eduard Atuesta sent off in the 45th minute
What the Black & Gold have that their MLS predecessors in CCL did not, however, is Carlos Vela.
Within minutes of the second-half whistle, “Cracklitos” had wreaked karmic revenge on his friend and fellow Mexico international Ochoa, exploiting foolishness in America’s backline to score a rapid-fire brace, running his CCL total to five goals in four matches and putting a third Liga MX opponent to the sword in this tournament — something never before managed by an MLS team in a single edition of the competition. Having lost most of 2020 to injury and his wife’s pregnancy, which kept him out of the MLS is Back Tournament, Vela is making up for it in Orlando and then some.
“I’ve said it a few times, Carlos, it's special for him to play these teams,” said Bradley. “And it also comes in a year where obviously with different important family responsibilities and then an MCL injury, he missed a lot.
“So you can tell that at the end of this year, how much it means to him and when that comes across all the other players, that's obviously a special kind of leadership. And then he backs it up on the field. I mean not only with the two goals, but late in the game, his ability to run with the ball forward, get into the corner, take a foul, do all the little things that help you manage a difficult game.”
"You can tell how much it means to him, it comes across to all the other players. It's a special kind of leadership and then he backs it up on the field."— LAFC (@LAFC) December 20, 2020
Bob Bradley on what makes @11carlosV so special. #LAFC | @TheChampions pic.twitter.com/vgYxPAKLl9
As they crank up their homegrown signings and polish diamonds in the rough like Mahala Opoku, their hero vs. Cruz Azul earlier in the week, LAFC have quietly become one of the youngest teams in MLS. That only intensifies the value of Vela’s quality and confidence, and his colleagues seem to be raising their own levels in response.
“I think you see a more compact team, more committed, where we all run, where we all play,” said midfielder Jose Cifuentes. “So we’re giving everything for our objectives and we learned from the games we lost.”
Last year LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield by setting and maintaining a blistering tempo of play – and results – that the rest of MLS simply could not match. That ferocity was back in full effect on Saturday. In the words of America assistant coach Alvaro Galindo, deputizing for the ejected Miguel “Piojo” Herrera at the postgame presser, “we could not keep pace with the intensity with which the opponent played.”
Now Vela & Co. will try to do it all over again against another Mexican giant, Tigres UANL, in Tuesday’s final.
“I think we've learned from some of the moments that slipped away from us,” said Bradley, “and tonight you could see the concentration on so many guys – guys in the back moving out, organizing, winning balls and still finding moments to play. So, I'm really proud of everybody.
“You've got to develop that mentality, you've got to sometimes suffer a little bit and we have. So to be in a final is really special.”