LAFC makes recent history by advancing to CONCACAF Champions League final

LAFC has proved to be the best team in MLS. Now it gets another chance to see how it measures up against the best in Mexico.

A 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on Tuesday night at BMO Stadium in the second leg of the teams’ CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series gave LAFC a 4-1 aggregate victory and a spot in the tournament final against the winner of the other semifinal matchup between Liga MX teams Tigres UANL and Club León. That series concludes Wednesday in León, with Tigres leading by a goal.

LAFC has been here before, reaching the CCL final in 2020, when it lost to Tigres. By returning, it will become the first MLS team this century to play in the region’s most prestigious club championship game twice. And it got there behind goals from Timothy Tillman, Mahala Opoku and Denis Bouanga and another clean sheet from goalkeeper John McCarthy, winning by a 3-0 score for the fourth time in six CCL games this year. LAFC has outscored opponents 14-3 in the tournament.

As a result, even a Major League Soccer rival is arguing that LAFC has little to prove in this country.

“It’s probably the best team in our league’s history,” said Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin, whose team has never defeated LAFC.

“I definitely don’t agree,” answered Steve Cherundolo, who has won a Supporters’ Shield and an MLS Cup final and now advanced to a Champions League final in his first 15 months as LAFC’s coach. “There’s still a lot of work to be done to say that.”

Either way, Mexico’s Liga MX — winner of 16 of the last 17 Champions League titles — looms as the next test for Cherundolo’s team, which has conquered all that Canada and the United States have to offer.

The reigning MLS champion, LAFC has won more games, gathered more points and scored more goals than any other team since it entered the league in 2018. And it has done much of that damage at home. Tuesday’s game was LAFC’s 100th competitive match at its Exposition Park stadium, and it has lost just 13.

One of those matches was against Philadelphia in November in an epic MLS Cup final, which LAFC won on penalty kicks. But LAFC has won just three of six games, including friendlies, against Liga MX teams during that span. And all three wins, as well as two losses, came in the 2020 CCL, in which LAFC reached the final before losing to Tigres on two goals in the final 18 minutes.

That tournament was paused nine months by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the final two rounds played in a single-elimination format in an empty stadium in Orlando, Fla., rather than with the traditional two-leg home-and-away playoff matchups. That robbed LAFC of one of its chief weapons — BMO Stadium’s raucous atmosphere.

This year, LAFC will get a home date in the final.

All it needed to advance Tuesday was a clean sheet, and McCarthy, a Philadelphia native who was most valuable player of the MLS Cup final, gave the team that, notching his fourth shutout of the tournament. LAFC added three goals to its aggregate total just to be sure.

The first goal, in the 13th minute, came from Tillman. The sequence started with Carlos Vela bending a corner kick to the edge of the six-yard box for Ilie Sánchez, whose header was saved when Union goalkeeper Andre Blake reached behind to sweep the ball off the line with his right hand.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, he swept the ball right into the path of Tillman, who finished cleanly at the far post.

Philadelphia had to chase that 1-0 deficit with just 10 men after Olivier Mbaizo was ejected after drawing a second yellow card for a reckless challenge of Bouanga in the 59th minute. Opoku, a second-half substitute, erased any hopes of a comeback in the 82nd minute, drilling a left-footed shot just under the crossbar from the edge of the six-yard box.

Bouanga then closed out the scoring in the final minute, scoring for the sixth time in as many CCL games. The goal was his 13th in 14 games in all competitions this season.

“We are ecstatic to be in the final of the competition,” said Cherundolo, whose team is 9-1-4 in all competitions this year. “It was the highlight on our calendar, as well as the MLS [schedule], for the first half of the season. So far, we’ve accomplished the goals that we’ve set for ourselves. And there’s one more to go.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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