The last time a team from Major League Soccer won CONCACAF’s continental club competition, Destiny’s Child topped the Billboard chart with “Independent Women,” Carlos Vela was playing for a junior club in Cancun and the likelihood of Andre-Pierre Gignac making it as a pro in France was slim.
In other words, it’s been a long wait for MLS to conquer what has become one of the league’s holy grails.
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Since DC United’s 1998 win and LA Galaxy’s victory in the 2000 edition (played in early 2001) of what was known then as the Champions’ Cup, three MLS teams — Toronto FC (2018), Montreal Impact (2015) and Real Salt Lake (2011) — have come up short in the CONCACAF Champions League finals.
Now it is LAFC’s turn in a one-off match against Tigres UANL on Tuesday night in Orlando. A ticket to the 2021 Club World Cup in Qatar — where the likes of Bayern Munich await — is on the line. Here’s what you may have missed and what to look for:
LAFC’s unlikely wins over Liga MX sides
LAFC certainly couldn’t have had much more of a difficult draw in reaching the final, even if the revised format of this tournament has played into its hands.
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The Black-and-Gold hasn’t had to travel to the altitude of Mexico City for quarterfinal and semifinal two-legged ties against Cruz Azul and Club America. And both those teams had key figures out through injuries.
But in this year in which so much has been irregular, none of that should diminish what Bob Bradley’s team has accomplished thus far. No MLS team has ever knocked out three Liga MX teams in a single edition of the CONCACAF Champions League — LAFC defeated current Liga MX champion Club Leon in the Round of 16 — and the wins have been both deserved and riveting, with LAFC coming from behind in all three ties.
Even in that scrappy yet totally entrancing 3-1 semifinal win last Saturday over Club America — in which neither team covered themselves in glory with their antics — it was LAFC that played the better football and who emotionally pulled itself together at half-time.
It would’ve been easy to lose the plot at 1-0 down after Eduard Atuesta saw red just before the break for his slight movement while on the ground towards America keeper Guillermo Ochoa, who had provoked him and then exaggerated his reaction as if he was seriously hurt. Instead, LAFC regrouped in the locker room, Bradley told the team to keep playing its football and Vela capitalized on some amateur defending from Club America to make it 2-1 within one minutes and 26 seconds of the second half.
The loss was the final act for America coach Miguel Herrera, who was fired on Monday morning, likely partially for the loss, but also his antics during a skirmish between players and benches at halftime. “Piojo” was red-carded for his scuffle with LAFC assistant Ante Razov but refused to leave the pitch during the second half — even using a walkie-talkie to talk to his bench.
And despite calls for Atuesta’s booking to be overruled, CONCACAF announced on Monday that the Colombian will miss the Tigres match.
Figureheads square off in tantalizing duel
Bradley and his players talk often of LAFC’s playing “idea.” The intent to take the game to the opposition, keep the ball and win it back quickly is eye-catching and is surely part of the reason for the club’s steep rise in popularity over its first three years of existence.
But it’s when you mix in the Vela factor that the California club steps up from a team that plays attractive, free-flowing football to a unit capable of swiping aside Leon, Cruz Azul and America.
Vela is a statistical freak in the North American game, standing head and shoulders above anyone else in MLS over his three years in L.A. – 54 goals and 32 assists in 70 MLS games. Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stint at LA Galaxy comes close. And even in this edition of the CONCACAF Champions League, it’s Vela’s five goals in four games that have been crucial in LAFC’s march to the final. It’s almost as if he’s got a personal vendetta to stop a Liga MX club lifting the title for the 15th consecutive time.
But if there’s one other player in North America who has won the adulation of a fanbase, has the ability to turn games in something of the same way as Vela, it is Gignac, even if the club released a statement Monday saying he is carrying an injury.
The 35-year-old former France international and Marseille star has also scored five goals — as well as two assists — on the way to the final and is as close to a deity for Tigres fans as any player in the club’s history, as well one of the greatest foreigners to have played in Mexico’s first division.
Vela and Gignac are very different types of forwards, but they also have much in common as the figureheads of their teams. Their inspirational qualities rub off on those around them, they both lack any appetite for speaking to the press, love their adopted cities and, again in their own ways, they share a steely determination to win.
There would also be a heavy dose of irony if Mexican Vela was to be the player to lift the CCL and break Liga MX’s stronghold over the tournament, but Gignac, a naturalized Mexican citizen who has the Virgin of Guadalupe tattooed on the back of his right calf, is desperate for it not to happen and to wear the Tigres shirt at a Club World Cup.
Final piece in Tuca’s puzzle
Tigres will provide a sterner test for LAFC than Cruz Azul and Club America. For a start, Tigres have hit some reasonable form over games in Orlando, racking up seven goals without reply versus NYCFC and Honduras’ Olimpia en route to the final.
Tigres have been a machine under Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti over the last decade. Five Liga MX titles have elevated the status of the Monterrey club to previously unseen levels. The constant thorn in the club’s side, however, has been the inability to win a continental title. Tigres have now reached the CCL final for the fourth time in the last five years and also lost the 2015 Copa Libertadores final to River Plate.
There is a conviction that 2020 will finally be the year, although LAFC has risen to each challenge so far.
Both sides favor possession
From a style perspective, these are two teams that seek to dominate the ball, even if both are also perfectly capable on transitions. Tigres are famous for their long spells of possession under Ferretti and Bradley’s LAFC also tends to have the majority of possession in most matches.
The game will likely more resemble LAFC versus Leon than the MLS side against Club America or Cruz Azul, even if Tigres’ physicality down their spine — Nahuel Guzman, Carlos Salcedo, Guido Pizarro, Gignac — is an underrated aspect of the Liga MX team.
The talk on social media of Liga MX versus MLS and whether the northern league is “catching” Mexico’s first division is increasingly intense and even vitriolic at times.
The reality is that in CCL games over the last three years, Liga MX teams have won 15, MLS 13, with two draws. But it is also true that unless MLS can break Liga MX’s stranglehold and actually lift the trophy, Mexico’s domination of the tournament is always going to be the main takeaway.