LAFC 'extremely lucky' to be alive in Concacaf Champions League final

LAFC is still alive in the Concacaf Champions League final.

But even its coach, Steve Cherundolo, admitted the 2-1 scoreline of the loss at Mexico's Leon in Wednesday's first leg "was extremely lucky for us."

LAFC, which had played so well on the road in the first three rounds of the 2023, Champions League, was down 2-0 at the half and could have trailed by four or five goals but for goalkeeper John McCarthy.

The complexion of the final turned in the span of two minutes in stoppage time.

First, a third Leon goal was disallowed when Osvaldo Rodriguez was deemed to have fouled substitute right back Sergi Palencia for climbing over his back to head home Yairo Moreno's cross.

LAFC went down to the other end and finally broke through, scoring in the fourth minute of stoppage time when substitute Mateusz Bogusz raced down the right wing and played a ball into the penalty area, where an open Denis Bouanga slotted the ball home, silencing the crowd of 20,517 fans at Estadio Leon.

Leon players argued to no avail with Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez that a foul should have been called on LAFC center back Denil Maldonado at the start of the play, which would have nullified Bouanga's goal.

Cherundolo raced down the sideline to celebrate the 96th-minute goal as if LAFC had just won the title.

"A bit of a lifeline," was the reaction of the understated coach to the goal afterwards.

LAFC is the first MLS team to appear in the Champions League final twice, but it looked overawed by the occasion.

Leon has not played in the last three weeks after being eliminated in the Liga MX's Clausura playoffs, but it was the fresher and most aggressive team from the start.

Defender William Tesillo put Leon ahead in the 8th minute when his backwards header easily beat McCarthy. As the first half was about to expire, LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead was called for a handball on Video Review, and Leon's Angel Mena converted the ensuing penalty kick to make it 2-0.

McCarthy later stopped Mena on an open shot that would have given Leon a third goal before the hour mark with one of his five saves.

“The performances of every individual out there, the performance of the group as a group, needs to be much, much improved," said Cherundolo.

The second leg will be played Sunday in Los Angeles. 

In 2020, LAFC came back from 2-0 down after the first leg to beat Leon 3-0 at home and advance in the opening round.

LAFC was looking at having to do that again before Bounga's late goal, his tournament-leading seventh goal in seven games to go along with 10 goals in 12 MLS games for LAFC in 2023.

“That goal does give us a chance," Cherundolo said, "but that goal alone does not help us win a final."

He said LAFC has the experience to bounce back.

“We’re also fit enough to put in a much better performance on Sunday," Cherundolo added. "And this team knows exactly what’s at stake. I'm 100 percent positive that our performance on Sunday will be much improved."

Photos: LAFC

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