LAFC aiming for CONCACAF Champions League title after heartbreaking 2020 run

John Thorrington has been here before, a result away from seeing his team reach the final of the region’s most prestigious club competition. But while the situation feels familiar, everything is different too.

“The world is in a different place. Which meant for a very different experience,” said LAFC’s co-president and general manager, whose team will meet the Philadelphia Union in the second leg of a CONCACAF Champions League semifinal matchup Tuesday night.

The last time LAFC played in the CCL semifinals, in 2020, the world had been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament, traditionally played in the spring in a two-leg home-and-away format, was paused for nine months before finishing in December with single-elimination games played behind closed doors in Orlando, Fla.

Despite the obstacles, LAFC made it to the final and led with less than 20 minutes to play before two late goals gave Tigres UANL a 2-1 victory. Would the result have been different if the final had been played in May, when Bradley Wright-Phillips, LAFC’s second-leading goal scorer, was still with the team? Would it have been different if one game had been played before LAFC’s rabid supporters in its sold-out Exposition Park fortress rather than in an empty, silent stadium 2,500 miles away?

“We’ll never know,” Thorrington said. “That was such a weird and thankfully unique period for all of us. That whole season, we were without our fans. And we certainly were affected by that.

“It’s hard to say what I do regret. First of all, I was really grateful we could have the tournament at all. But if I were to look back and be somewhat picky, it would have just been amazing to think about those teams that we played. To play Cruz Azul, then to play América and then play Tigres in two-legged ties would have been absolutely incredible.”

LAFC will be at home Tuesday, when it will meet the Union in the second game of this year’s CCL semifinals with a chance to become the first MLS team this century to reach the final twice. The winner will be decided on aggregate goals over the playoff’s two legs, and with away goals serving as the first tiebreaker, LAFC has a slight edge after last week’s 1-1 draw in Chester, Pa.

Winning or holding Philadelphia scoreless in the rematch will send LAFC on, but beyond that things become complicated. Another 1-1 draw, for example, would send the game to penalty kicks, which is how last fall’s epic MLS Cup final between LAFC and the Union, won by LAFC, was decided.

“Odds are we’ll never see what happened in November ever again,” Thorrington said. “But I suppose that’s what great about sports: You never know.”

A 2-2 draw, meanwhile, would allow Philadelphia to advance on the away-goals tiebreaker.

Only four players remain from the lineup that started for LAFC in its 3-1 CCL semifinal win over Club América in 2020. And only four others remain from the players on the bench that day. The coaching staff is completely different as well.

But Thorrington, who built an expansion LAFC team into a Supporters’ Shield winner and CCL finalist in its first three seasons, did a masterful job of rebuilding in 2021 and 2022.

“It’s difficult for an expansion team to not go through these cycles,” said Thorrington, the only general manager to lead an expansion team to Major League Soccer’s best record twice in its first five seasons. “Because a lot of your new players are on four-year contracts, you do end up hitting this cycle where you have to either re-sign, sell, move players on. So it goes through this natural cycle.

“It wasn’t like a revolution was needed. We tweaked things, [and] we kept a lot of things that we felt are always going to be a part of our DNA. There was turnover with staff, which we hadn’t dealt with before. I think we were all pleasantly surprised by how that continuity helped us start off quicker than maybe we would have expected with the amount of change.”

So which team is better? The one that won a Supporters’ Shield in 2019 and made the CCL final a year later? Or the one that won a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in 2022 and is playing in the CCL semifinals a year later?

“So many people ask me that question,” Thorrington said with a chuckle. “I think this team is deeper. I think this team has more options and ways in which we [can be] successful, whether that’s defending, our goalkeeping, our depth and [how] we can find ways to win games.”

Maybe. But the 2020 COVID-era team made it to the CCL final. This year’s team still has one more hurdle to clear to match that.

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Look for it every Tuesday morning at Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Source Link

About The Author


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *