Forget “the gap.”
Put any of the talk we’re subjected to about how close Major League Soccer is or isn’t to arriving at Liga MX’s level behind you.
Los Angeles FC took the first step toward becoming the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League on Thursday, beating Leon 3-0 to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit and move into the quarterfinals. They became the first MLS team to overcome that two-goal gap from a Mexican team. And they did it for themselves.
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Sure, plenty of MLS fans were pushing them on, eager to see an MLS team get a rare victory over a team in Liga MX, which has provided every champion for the tournament since a format switch in 2008. But LAFC had the best night in the club’s short history, an achievement that rests solely at the feet of Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Bob Bradley and the rest of the club.
Angel Mena’s 90th-minute goal from a Luis Montes pass at the end of the first leg not only served as a backbreaker for LAFC but a warning shot. This is what Leon can do when it wants to. Think you have the result in hand? Think again.
LAFC benefited from Mena not traveling because of an injury, but Leon hardly made it easy. This is a team that will contend for the Liga MX title this season, just as it did in the last tournament. Nacho Ambriz has built a team with impressive attacking depth, a strong defensive spine and, in Pedro Aquino and Ivan Rodriguez, a midfield that actually provides linking play.
Despite a strong start from the home side, the first 30 minutes passed without LAFC finding the back of the net. A goal wrongly ruled out for being offside seemed to break a mental barrier for LAFC, however, with the ball over the line — and this time counting on the scoreboard — just minutes after.
It should be no surprise that rather than looking for an excuse about still being in preseason, Bradley had his team ready to come out and play a complete 45 minutes, avoiding the fade that had afflicted his club in the first leg and so many MLS teams past and present in the CCL.
LAFC still needed a second goal after the break, and despite promising attack after promising attack, the aggregate equalizer came almost out of nowhere. Right back Tristan Blackmon, who struggled most of the series, put the ball at Vela’s feet with a low cross and the Mexican superstar did the rest, surprising Rodolfo Cota with a quick shot to his near post.
It seemed for so long like it wasn’t going to be LAFC’s night until it became so obvious that it was.
“I don’t know if this is going to sound good or bad, but it was a fair result for them,” Cota said after the match. “I don’t think we deserved to go to the next round. We didn’t come out to play like Leon is known for playing, having the ball, being agressive. I don’t want to diminish any of my teammates but I think they were better than us in all aspects.”
Diego Rossi found the critical third with a “was it a shot or a cross?” effort that dinked the crossbar and went in. Ambriz turned to Leonardo Ramos, but LAFC were able to keep Leon from scoring a single time. Their first international series will go down as a success with a Thursday night to remember for fans of the nascent club.
Has MLS closed the gap? The question answered itself when the MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders fell to Olimpia in a penalty shootout while LAFC’s players were still celebrating with the 3252.
But the first round of a single tournament never was going to show progress or regression anyway. America needed a penalty shootout to get past Guatemala’s Comunicacaiones. Tigres needed a late goal from their own goalkeeper to avoid elimination at the hands of El Salvador’s Alianza. The tournament isn’t as easy as it may seem.
MLS will prove it’s on Liga MX’s level not when a team breaks through and wins the title for the first time but when MLS teams are consistently lifting the trophy.
Will LAFC be that historic first? They’ve taken an important step, but it will take three more of these best nights in club history to make it happen.
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