LAFC is pushing to defy history and earn rare CONCACAF Champions League win over Léon

A year ago, Brian Schmetzer solved the riddle that had bewildered MLS managers for more than two decades by leading Seattle to a CONCACAF Champions League title. The Sounders’ one-sided win over Pumas marked the first time this century an MLS team won the region’s most prestigious club competition — and the first time a Mexican team had lost in the final since 2005.

But if Schmetzer learned anything from that historic triumph, he’s apparently not willing to share it with LAFC’s Steve Cherundolo, whose team is trying to match Seattle’s feat.

“I don’t think Steve needs any help from me,” Schmetzer said diplomatically. “I mean, he’s lit it on fire. LAFC does a fabulous job. They do things right.

“I wouldn’t venture any advice.”

LAFC will open its two-leg, home-and-away CCL final against Léon on Wednesday night in Guanajuato. The playoff, which will be decided on aggregate goals, concludes Sunday night at BMO Stadium. And though LAFC has proved to be the best team in MLS over the last two seasons — “probably the best team in our league’s history,” Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin said — playing a Mexican team in the Champions League final is an altogether different test.

“It’s a challenging, hard tournament to win for sure,” Schmetzer said. “You need to have that little bit of good fortune.”

“It’s extremely difficult,” he added.

That seems obvious. However, it’s not the only thing Schmetzer learned in his team’s unbeaten Champions League run. He learned that it’s not a one-season project but one that builds over a couple of years. It’s a tournament that requires a unique roster made up of both game-changing talent and uncommon depth. And it’s such a long and emotional competition, wedged entirely into the first half of the MLS schedule, that it has the potential — indeed the likelihood — of disrupting the rest of the season.

For Seattle, the drive to the 2022 CCL title began in the 2021 Leagues Cup, in which it shut out two Liga MX teams before running out of gas in the final, giving up two goals in the final nine minutes of a 3-2 loss to Léon.

“I really think that helped us a ton,” Schmetzer said. “I just think that when you play consistently at a high level against different opponents, you kind of gain an understanding. That’s what helped us.”

No MLS team has won a league or domestic cup or the Supporters’ Shield in the same season it played in the CCL final. In fact, LAFC is just the second reigning MLS and Supporters’ Shield winner to even make the CCL final, after D.C. United in 1998.

More common is the Sounders’ post-tournament experience, with Seattle missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history — and finishing with a losing record for the first time — after its CCL win last year.

Injuries played a large part in that collapse, with irreplaceable midfielder Joao Paulo tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in the second leg of the CCL final and missing the rest of the season. But a schedule that forced the team to play a game every 3½ days in the first seven weeks of the season didn’t help.

“It does take its toll,” Schmetzer said of the fixture crunch. “There’s overuse injuries.”

LAFC has managed to alleviate some of that by rescheduling three league games during its CCL run. That could take a toll later, with the team scheduled to play seven times during the first 24 days in June and five times in the first 15 days of July.

That wasn’t an issue in LAFC’s only other CCL appearance in 2020, although that actually worked to the team’s disadvantage. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the final three rounds of the tournament were moved from the start of the MLS season to December and played in a single-elimination format at a neutral site, robbing LAFC of two massive advantages: depth and its tremendous home-field edge.

Playing under coach Bob Bradley in an empty stadium in Orlando, Fla., LAFC gave up two goals in the final 18 minutes of a 2-1 loss to Tigres three days before Christmas. The second leg of this year’s CCL final will be played at LAFC’s Exposition Park stadium, where the team has lost just 14 times in 103 mostly sold-out games.

And that’s not the team’s only edge — though an exhausting fixture crunch can be a problem, so can too much rest. Léon hasn’t played since May 7, when it was eliminated by Atletico San Luis in the Liga MX Clausura playoffs, while LAFC has played three league matches and two U.S. Open Cup games since then — although captain Carlos Vela and leading scorer Denis Bouanga have each played less than 200 minutes over that span, perhaps negating part of that advantage.

“You get rhythm through playing games,” Schmetzer said. “You get rhythm through playing games once a week.

“It could be a wash. I just believe that LAFC has the quality to figure out a way to compete and they’ll get it done.”

And that wouldn’t help just LAFC but Seattle and MLS as well, which is why Schmetzer suspects the rest of the league is rooting for Cherundolo, even if the Sounders aren’t willing to share any secrets.

“I fully hope that LAFC can pull this out as we start rewriting the narrative that for 20 years it was some ungodly amount of success by Liga MX teams,” Schmetzer said. “It would be nice if a couple of American teams won it back to back and really put that marker in the ground.”

⚽ 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. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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