LAFC's opportunity lost, a big one

Los Angeles FC's failure, if that's the appropriate term, to claim the Concacaf Champions League crown is primarily about performance.

The reigning MLS Cup champ, exquisite so often the past three months, was poor in the first leg and not nearly efficient enough in the finale, and so it was Club Leon deservedly celebrating on the BMO Stadium turf Sunday night.
It also was about, head coach Steve Cherundolo suggested when it was done, timing and scheduling and the disparate rules MLS and Liga MX employ for building rosters -- all the old stuff -- and the weight of 15 games in 53 days ahead of the title series.
The LAFC that mesmerized en route to its second Supporters' Shield last year and overwhelmed rivals in this season's 7-1-4 MLS start and its march into these games was nowhere to be seen. The moment arrived “not at our best moment,” and Leon gave Mexico its 14th title in 15 years on 3-1 aggregate with Sunday's 1-0 triumph.
“They had the right answers over two matches, and we came up short,” Cherundolo said. “I don’t think this will knock us down. We are obviously disappointed, and it hurts, as it should. But we now know where the level is where we need to get to, and we’ll do everything in our power to get there and to come back stronger and to win this event, if we're able to play in it next season, next year.”
The Angelenos, who had outscored opposition from Costa Rica and MLS, 14-3, to reach the final, were over the course of the two games sloppy with the ball, labored to create and finish opportunities, were overrun in midfield, succumbed to defensive lapses, and found its difference-makers in poor form, for the most part.
They were alive into the second leg only because of tournament Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga's strike deep into stoppage time on Wednesday -- his seventh of the competition -- but the French-born Gabonese forward whiffed on a can't-miss chance to tie the aggregate not quite two minutes in, goalkeeper John McCarthy failed to paw away a brutally soft goal in the 20th, and Leon's “mature” performance, as Kellyn Acosta put it, completed the job.
This LAFC was not the LAFC to which we've grown accustomed.
“I think the facts that we face as an MLS team in tournaments like this, if you want to consistently play in finals and win these, you're going to have to rethink your roster rules and regulations,” Cherundolo said, echoing CCL coaches since the tournament's modern era began in 2008. “You're at a big disadvantage. There's a little more money on that side of the table, and money in this game buys quality players.
“I think we have a good enough team to win this tournament, but I think with our schedule and all the competitions this year, we had a lot going on and we ended up in the final not at our best moment. Roster-building is about that, and having deeper rosters and more players, quality players on your team, will allow you to extend those periods of play, and every MLS team is at a disadvantage there.”
LAFC, in its second CCL final in four seasons, looked worn out, and with reason. A schedule compacted in part to clear space for this summer's Leagues Cup -- an offseason event for the Mexican clubs -- had them playing two games all but one of the previous eight weeks, an outing, on average, every three and a half days. Leon hadn't played since it was eliminated from Liga MX's Clausura playoffs on May 7; whatever ills the layoff might have imparted, Los Esmeraldas were the fresher side, for sure.

“It was just disappointing,” said Cherundolo, who made five lineup changes and trotted out a new formation in response to the challenges Leon presented Wednesday, “when guys are not in the right spot and are not in a good moment.”
The loss was LAFC's third in a row, with a reserve lineup's 2-0 U.S. Open Cup defeat to archrival LA Galaxy preceding Leon's first-leg victory, only the fourth time the club has skidded that far in its five and a half seasons.
“We're just disappointed,” said Acosta, who returned from a two-week injury and lined up in central midfield next to Ilie Sanchez in a 5-2-3/3-4-3 alignment meant to push fullbacks Diego Palacios and Sergi Palencia higher into the attack and provide greater width. “First leg, it wasn't good enough. We're in a deep hole. We're fortunate with the late, late Denis goal that gave us a lifeline, but if we're being honest, the game should have been 4-0, 5-0 then.
“And then this game, with them scoring a little bit early, kind of deflated us a little bit. I think we did create some half-chances here and there, but overall it just wasn't our night.”
The change in tactics, from the customary 4-3-3 system, seemed a curious approach. It altered the roles of key figures, with usual orchestrator Ilie Sanchez pushed a little higher in attack, Acosta sitting as a twin pivot, and Giorgio Chiellini, returning from a nearly six-week injury, chiefly the deep outlet between fellow center backs Jesus Murillo, back from suspension, and Aaron Long.
It played a role on the goal, in which the Leon carved up a confused LAFC defense with a 10-pass sequence, with Fidel Ambriz finding space behind on the right -- Diego Palacios was too far forward to deal with the threat -- for Ivan Romero's cross into the middle. Lucas Di Yorio's finish wasn't hard nor dynamic, and a leaning McCarthy, possibly screened a bit, got his hand to the ball, which caromed into the net.
“Our left side kind of fell asleep and lost track of a player, and it's that simple,” Cherundolo said. “Then there's a scramble in the box.”
Palacios and Palencia were aggressive on the flanks, and Diego Palacios set up the early chance, taking a through ball from Mateusz Bogusz and threading it into the goalmouth, where it skipped off the top of Bouanga's shoe. Another chance arrived in the 11th, with Long nodding a Carlos Vela free kick wide of the target, and Acosta fired just right of the post before halftime.
“Leon brought us a lot of challenges in the first leg, and we wanted to adapt to that, especially in the 3-4-3 formation ...,” Acosta said. “Get our fullbacks a little bit higher. We had to score a goal, so we wanted to play more of an aggressive game, and you say whatever you want about formations, but overall it wasn't good enough.”
Cherundolo reverted to the 4-3-3 in the second half, pulling Chiellini in favor of Jose Cifuentes to restore the midfield triangle. LAFC's best chances from there came from halftime substitute Kwadwo “Mahala” Opoku and Bouanga moments apart about 10 minutes before the end of regulation.
The scoreboard proclaimed Bouanga's side-netting blast a “goal!” and if it had been, it would have made for a most interesting final 20 minutes -- half of that stoppage. But LAFC never really looked the part. Vela was a shadow of himself, again, and Sanchez, arguably the club's most important on-field presence, made minimal impact. Chiellini didn't look good, and Bouanga wasn't at his best.

“We have not played to our best,” Sanchez said. “Starting with me, we haven't played to our potential, and I think that's one of the reasons why Leon was better in this final and deserve to win.”
Cherundolo rued “the quality in general of our football, our passing, creating of chances and finishing chances.”
“There were chances tonight, and we didn’t finish,” he said. “I think that the quality of our football overall could have been better in these two matches. From my experiences in this game as a player, the higher up you go, the higher the level is, the less chances you get, and the better you have to be. ...
“The guys fought like Lions. They did everything in their power to try to win this match. A few bounces don't go our way, early chances don't go in, and you let one in, and you're chasing the game. ... It's just one of those phases.”
An opportunity lost, to be sure. A failure?
“No, it's not the right time, the right moment for that word,” Cherundolo said. “I think this team has been fantastic over 18 months and has achieved so much. Has put a lot of smiles on a lot of people's faces. Has played some very good football. And competed for another final, came up a little short. That's competitive sports, professional sports.
“This tournament for MLS teams, the timing and scheduling is pretty unfortunate and awkward. Everybody would prefer this came at the end of the season. Maybe our Concacaf officials here tonight can work on the scheduling and give MLS teams a final at the end of their season and make Liga MX teams play in the middle of their season. But I don't expect any favors.”
“My words to the group that I can share with you: It's, 'Look, this hurts. It should hurt. Go home with your wounds, and then we'll get back to work, because we have a lot of work to do and I think there's still a lot of goals and points out there for us this year.”

Photos: Bouanga/Opoku (LAFC), Tesillo (

4 comments about "LAFC's opportunity lost, a big one".
  1. James Madison, June 5, 2023 at 4:38 p.m.

    Premier League teams play Champions League games in the midst of their seasons.

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, June 5, 2023 at 10:39 p.m.

    They get 6 Billion to Spend on Rosters.!!!

  3. humble 1, June 6, 2023 at 12:08 p.m.

    Given all that coach Cherundolo mentions, correctly, the final should be one game.  Period.  Two legged final with away goals - stone ages.  One-off final - can be rotated to Mexico USA or where-ever just one game. Takes the pressur off the roster and brings to focus on one game.    

  4. Wooden Ships replied, June 6, 2023 at 2:16 p.m.


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