This week, LAFC attempt to overturn a two-goal deficit in the second leg of their CCL tie against Club Leon. Not only that, however, some tactical tendencies from the first leg only add to the danger of their task.
Los Angeles FC are the best team in Major League Soccer history. And then, in the offseason, they got better. Even when they lost Walker Zimmerman in a blockbuster trade to Nashville SC, their acquisitions at goalkeeper and central midfield made them an even more formidable team.
In their first outing as Supporters’ Shield winners in the CONCACAF Champions League, it was tentatively hoped that the best team in MLS could finally hold a candle to the best teams that Liga MX has to offer.
This all started against Club Leon, who are arguably the most complete and exciting team in Mexican football at present. LAFC travelled to Leon for the first leg of their Round of 16 tie, hoping to keep themselves in the tie before the return leg at the Banc of California Stadium a week later. It did not go to plan.
While Bob Bradley’s team created openings that they should have better exploited, they were carved open defensively, especially on the counter-attack, with Leon searing through the LAFC resistance time and again. It may have only been 1-0 with 80 minutes gone, but Angel Mena’s 88th-minute dagger to the heart after a poor turnover from LAFC puts the tie almost to bed.
The Black and Gold are not out of it just yet. The second leg will be played on Thursday night and they have nothing to lose. The two-goal deficit is immensely deflating and daunting, without question, but LAFC are excellent at home and have the offensive firepower to start fast, score a goal, and cause at least an element of panic and uncertainty in the Leon ranks. Knockout football does strange things, sometimes.
However, there are more reasons than just the scoreline for LAFC to worry about. Perhaps what is most concerning for their second-leg prospects is the manner in which they lost in the first leg and the tactical tendencies that appeared, especially in the second half.
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Leon are an extremely pacy and direct team. With Mena leading the line, Jean Meneses flying off the left side, and Luis Montes dictating play centrally, putting pressure on opposing players and sliding through passes in behind the backline, they are tremendous at exploiting wide spaces on the break. And they proved it in the first leg.
Where LAFC were unable to find the right pass to feed their brilliant frontline, often choosing to slow down attacks at just the wrong moment instead of releasing that crucial forward pass, Leon were accurate, direct, purposeful, and, most importantly, intelligent.
As has so often been the case with Mexican teams versus MLS teams, their decision-making on the ball was far superior, aiding the deliberate distribution to hurt LAFC in transition. They chose their moments to break forward and rarely made a poor choice, thus exploiting the confusion of the LAFC ranks when the ball was given away.
Not only are LAFC faced with a two-goal deficit knowing that if they concede they will have to score; in Club Leon, they are tasked with containing one of the best counter-attacking teams in the competition. The scoreline is a problem, but the tactics might be even more detrimental to their cause. This really is a mountainous task.