Late goal not enough as LAFC falls 2-1 to León in first leg

If you thought rust was going to be an issue for Club León in the CONCACAF Champions League final, you were wrong.

The Mexican side had not played an official game since May 7 but they were certainly up for the task in leg 1, defeating LAFC 2-1 at Estadio León.

From the opening whistle León was out to set the tone as they forced goalkeeper John McCarthy to come up with a huge save just about six and half minutes in. A minute later he was frozen and could do nothing but watch as William Tesillo sent a beautiful header directly off a corner kick right past him to open the scoring.

The energy of the 20,517 in attendance matched what León was doing on the field. LAFC ran through competition en route to this final, but the Mexican club was the one doing the dominating throughout the first half. In the first 30 minutes, the hosts had already mustered up six shots while the visitors had only two.

León was the more aggressive team, cleaner and confident on the ball as they kept the pressure high, not allowing the Black and Gold to find any rhythm. They recorded 28 touches in LAFC’s box in the first half, which is the most the Major League Soccer side has allowed in any half in club history, according to OptaJack.

Getting out of the opening frame down by just one would’ve been a gift for LAFC, but in stoppage time defender Ryan Hollingshead was called for a handball in the box after video review. Ángel Mena stepped up and drilled the penalty kick to extend the lead at the break.

“Our passing was some of the worst I’ve seen all season,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo. “Credit to León, they played excellent in the first half. We didn’t have answers for that.”

The second half wasn’t much different. Any few chances LAFC had on the counter were rendered irrelevant due to bad decision-making or errant passes. They finished the majority of the game with only two shots on goal, one by Jose Cifuentes in the opening two minutes and another by Stipe Biuk in the 64th, in what was a rather easy night for León goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota.

Carlos Vela, who naturally drew a lot of the anticipated attention, was barely mentioned. But in the dying minutes of the match he helped slip a pass to Sergi Palencia which resulted in an extremely clutch goal from Denis Bouanga in the 96th minute — his seventh of the tournament.

It’s an uphill battle for LAFC as they return home to host the second leg Sunday at BMO Stadium. The optimistic Black and Gold fans will reminisce on 2020 when LAFC played León in the Round of 16 of this tournament, losing 2-0 in the first leg before a historic 3-0 comeback win in SoCal. This isn’t that, but it offers a bit of hope. One thing Cherundolo has been really good at during his short time as LAFC coach is making adjustments.

He’s now tasked with needing the biggest one yet.

“The scoreline was extremely lucky for us,” he said. “I’m 100 percent positive the LAFC performance Sunday will be much improved and hopefully good enough to raise a trophy.”

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