León beats LAFC again, claims first CONCACAF Champions League title
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lucas Di Yorio scored in the first half, and Club León secured its first CONCACAF Champions League title with a 1-0 victory over Los Angeles FC on Sunday night.
León won 3-1 on aggregate after winning the first leg of the final 2-1 in Mexico on Wednesday night. The Liga MX club thrilled its thousands of traveling supporters with another winning effort at LAFC's daunting BMO Stadium, highlighted by Di Yorio's goal in the 20th minute.
“This is a very difficult team to beat,” León coach Nicolás Larcamón said. “But we worked very well together in a tough situation, and we had a good plan.”
León finished sixth in the Liga MX standings last month, but took out the defending Major League Soccer champions with superior play in both legs. León is the ninth Mexican club to win the Champions League in its current format, which began in 2002.
LAFC won both the Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup last fall, but fell short of an unprecedented treble for an MLS club.
“If you look at the 180 minutes played, they deserved to win,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “But I don’t think this will knock us down. We’re obviously disappointed, and it hurts, as it should. But we now know where the level is, where 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 if we’re able to play in it next season, next year.”
A year ago, the Seattle Sounders became MLS’s first Champions League winner in the current format, making another argument for the leagues' increasing parity. But LAFC lost the Champions League final for the second time in four seasons: The club also lost the 2020 final to Tigres after knocking off León with a second-leg comeback victory earlier in that competition. Mexican teams have won 17 of the last 18 CCL titles.
Cherundolo believes this final underlines the limitations created by MLS' more stringent financial regulations and subsequent roster limitations.
“You’re at a big disadvantage,” Cherundolo said. “There’s a little more money on their side of the table, and money in this game buys quality players. I think we have a good enough team to win this tournament, but I think with our scheduling and all of the competitions this year, we had a lot going on, and we ended up in the final not at our best moment.”
LAFC also was playing its ninth match since May 2 amid the demands of the MLS regular season and the U.S. Open Cup, while León had been off since May 7 when Liga MX’s season ended.
With a hunger to gain international recognition for their remarkable success in just six seasons of existence, LAFC's coaches and executives had described this final as the most important match in team history, although most acknowledged the MLS titles mean more to fans.
In the first leg, León took a two-goal lead into second-half injury time before a dramatic strike from Denis Bouanga kept LAFC's hope alive despite its 2-1 loss.
LAFC opened the rematch with an uncharacteristic five-defender formation including Italian great Giorgio Chiellini, who hadn't played since April 26 due to a leg injury. Cherundolo said he chose the formation for “more control” and better attacking on the wings.
LAFC was more assertive on offense than in the first leg, but Di Yorio still boosted León's lead when the Argentine forward got space in the box and bounced a shot that got away from LAFC goalkeeper John McCarthy, who made a handful of spectacular saves in the opening match.
LAFC managed a handful of moderately promising chances in the second half, but still only put three shots on goal. León goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota made a stellar save on Timothy Tillman's header in the fourth minute of second-half injury time.
The lively home-and-home final was the latest positive step in the partnership between MLS and Liga MX, which have partnered on multiple competitive business ventures in recent years to create revenue while boosting North American soccer's global profile.
“We want people to know these are both growing soccer nations,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said before the match. “When the world sees this final, and when they see the (Leagues Cup), they’re going to know it.”
In late July, both leagues will pause domestic competition for the third edition of the Leagues Cup club tournament, which will feature every team in MLS and Liga MX participating for the first time.
“That was a very big effort, but we felt it was important to do it,” Liga MX President Mikel Arriola said. “We are building something together, and the world will see more competition, more quality.”
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