LAFC’s Champions League title dreams shattered in loss to León

LAFC has made a habit of collecting trophies at its fortress-like stadium in Exposition Park, bringing home two Supporters’ Shields and an MLS Cup in the last four seasons. No MLS team has won more.

But LAFC let the biggest prize slip through its hands Sunday, losing to León 1-0 at BMO Stadium in the CONCACAF Champions League final, the region’s most important club competition. That result, combined with last week’s 2-1 result in Mexico, gave León a 3-1 victory in the two-leg playoff, which is decided by the aggregate score over both games.

“We got beat by a very good team,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “If you look at the 180 minutes of play, they deserve it. We’re obviously disappointed and it hurts, as it should.

“But we now know where the level is 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.”

But if that sounds like a concession speech, Cherundolo made clear it wasn’t.

“If I’m very honest and open and honest, I don’t think that they are the better team,” he said. “I just think that they were better than these two games. That’s how this competition works.”

León was certainly the better team Sunday, with Lucas Di Yorio’s goal midway through the first half giving the team its first CONCACAF title in its second appearance in the regional final, the last coming in 1993, when the competition had a different name and format. The win also gave Liga MX clubs 17 of the last 18 CCL championships and 38 in 58 tournaments overall.

LAFC goalkeeper John McCarthy and defender Aaron Long try to stop a shot by León midfielder Lucas Di Yorio.

LAFC goalkeeper John McCarthy and defender Aaron Long (33) try to stop a shot by León midfielder Lucas Di Yorio during the second half Sunday.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

For LAFC, Sunday’s loss was just its 15th in 104 games at home. But it was also the second time in four years LAFC has fallen in the CCL final.

And LAFC’s fate might have been sealed before kickoff when Cherundolo jettisoned the fluid attacking style his team has used to great success the last two seasons. After being punished by León’s speed and wide play in the first leg, Cherundolo made five lineup changes for the second, choosing to defend with a five-man back line, releasing the two outside backs — Diego Palacios and Sergi Palencia — to roam forward in the attack.

“[We wanted] just a little more control of the game and to defend a little better and to create a little more on the flanks,” Cherundolo said of his strategy. “It could have worked out beautifully. But this game, it’s not about tactics. It’s about moments and mentality.

“And in the right moments, they were a little bit better.”

León made LAFC pay for the switch in strategy in the 20th minute, catching Palacios playing narrow and up the field to score the game’s only goal on a counterattack.

The sequence began with a low through ball from Angel Mena in the middle of the LAFC half that found Ivan Moreno with loads of open space on the right wing. Moreno dribbled to the edge of the penalty area before delivering a cross to Di Yorio on the other side of the box and the Argentine forward did the rest, spinning to his right to avoid defenders and one-timing a right-footed shot off the hands of LAFC goalkeeper John McCarthy.

“Our left side kind of fell asleep and lost track of a player. It’s really that simple,” Cherundolo said.

On the other end, LAFC, which hadn’t been held scoreless in the tournament, misfired on its two best first-half chances, with Aaron Long heading a Carlos Vela free kick just wide of the left post in the 11th minute and Kellyn Acosta rolling a left-footed shot wide of the other post in the 41st minute.

By the hour mark, Cherundolo was so desperate for offense he subbed off Vela, his captain, for rookie Stipe Biuk. It didn’t make much of a difference, though, with LAFC’s best look coming in the 80th minute when Denis Bouanga, the tournament’s leading scorer with seven goals in eight games, drilled a left-footed shot into the side netting.

León players celebrate after defeating LAFC to win the CONCACAF Champions League final at BMO Stadium on Sunday night.

León players celebrate after defeating LAFC to win the CONCACAF Champions League final at BMO Stadium on Sunday night.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Then in stoppage time, Timothy Tillman one-hopped a header right at León goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota, leaving Cherundolo and his players to congratulate their opponent while conceding nothing.

His team, he said, had learned a lesson — one that will make it that much tougher to beat when it gets back to the CCL final.

“From my experiences in this game as a player, the higher up you go, the higher the level is, the less chances you get,” the coach said. “We did a good job of minimizing their chances. But again, it’s a soft goal that was very easy to defend and we fell asleep.”

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