LAFC pulls one back late to set up thrilling Champions League final

A stoppage time goal by Dénis Bouanga on Wednesday kept alive LAFC’s dreams of becoming the second consecutive Major League Soccer team to win the CONCACAF Champions League title despite last year’s MLS Cup winner dropping the opening match of its home-and-home, total-goals series 2-1 to LigaMX club León.

Here are three quick takeaways following Wednesday’s dramatic opener:

LAFC rides its luck after a nightmare start

Make no mistake: with the decisive second leg on Sunday (9 p.m. ET, FS1) at home, LAFC would’ve been thrilled to leave Mexico with a tie. In front of a partisan home crowd, keeping León’s dangerous attack from running amok was the top priority beforehand. “We have to be smart,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela said before the MLS reps hopped a charter south of the border earlier this week.

That game plan went out the window when León’s William Tesillo headed the opening goal past goalkeeper John McCarthy less than eight minutes in:

The teams had traded good chances before that, with McCarthy making a brilliant fingertip save to keep the score level, but the hosts were the clear aggressors as expected.

After taking the lead, Leon only came harder. LAFC was clearly shaken but held on thanks to some emergency defending and a couple of near misses from the hosts. When the visitors won possession, which wasn’t often, the slick cohesion they’d displayed all through the tournament deserted them. The final pass just wasn’t there, and sure enough León made it 2-0 from the penalty spot before the first half was over:

The second half was a little better for LAFC. They still hadn’t pulled a goal back by the 90th minute, though. At that point, they would’ve thought themselves lucky just to be down 2-0 on aggregate. Instead, Bouanga’s late strike gives LAFC a real chance. Rather than needing a miracle following a mostly disappointing opener, a convincing victory is now somehow all it will take for Steve Cherundolo’s team to capture the regional crown.

León couldn’t deliver the fatal blow

There’s no doubt that the home team was better one from start to finish. In every single statistical category, León was superior. Except one. The 2-1 score line makes it seem close and it wasn’t. The hosts actually looked to have scored the backbreaking third goal they absolutely deserved just before Bouanga’s 95th minute stunner, only for a foul spotted in the buildup to cancel it out.

The fact is that León should’ve delivered the fatal blow on Wednesday. As much as McCarthy stood on his head to keep his team in it, the hosts also squandered several golden chances. Bury one or two of those, and Bouanga’s strike probably doesn’t even happen. León would likely have had an insurmountable advantage heading into to Sunday’s rematch. Instead, the Black and Gold knows that an early goal in front of their own supporters will even things up and thrust them right back into the fight for the trophy.

LAFC must be better to take the title 

As good as Wednesday’s result was for LAFC, a far better performance will be required Sunday for LAFC to take advantage of the opening that León left them.

Cherundolo’s best players have to be their best players when the series resumes at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles. Bouanga came into Wednesday’s game as the top scorer in both MLS and the Champions League, yet he barely threatened over the first 90 minutes. Vela, the former Mexico World Cup star and LAFC’s undisputed headliner, was marked tightly and rendered practically invisible. The visitors mustered just two measly shots on goal before Bouanga finally converted his chance against both the odds and the run of play.

This was a dud by LAFC, no question. But finding ways to get more than you deserve is the mark of a champion. Psychologically, this wasn’t a loss for the visitors. In reality, it still was, so whatever the silver lining is it won’t matter at all unless Cherundolo can coax the best out of his players for the all-important rematch. León still holds the aggregate lead, and they aren’t likely to hand LAFC a lifeline again.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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