When asked why MLS teams were struggling and failing to break though in international competition, the star player answered, “We’re too naive. We’re too nice. We’ve got to have that mentality.”
That star player was Jaime Moreno, and he said that 15 years ago. Time has passed, but MLS teams are still struggling and failing. And “mentality”—or whatever term you want to use for the phenomenon: “gamesmanship,” “picaro,” “cheating,” etc.—has remained a stubborn calling card of the Concacaf Champions League. It’s practically part of the brand, so much so that there’s even a term for it. Everyone now knows what “Getting Concacafed” means, and MLS has made it a habit. It just can’t solve the puzzle. Liga MX clubs have won 14 straight titles.
Los Angeles FC would’ve been excused if it entered its locker room at halftime of Saturday night’s CCL semifinal convinced it had been Concacafed. Club América goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who at 35 is as wily a Concacaf veteran as there is, had suckered another referee into falling for the same age-old antics.
Ochoa was on the ground, kicking and writhing and holding his face, and so LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta—who’d been fouled in the penalty area just a moment before—was ejected for a headbutt that didn’t happen. There is no VAR in the CCL, but even that may not have been enough to alter this deep-seated competitive culture. Instead of lining up for a penalty kick that could’ve tied the score at 1–1, LAFC headed into halftime down a goal and down a man against Concacaf’s most decorated club.
LAFC might have felt the world was against it. But coach Bob Bradley has seen it all, forward Carlos Vela can do it all and this was a team that had learned from previous big-game moments.
“We’ve constantly tried to find a way that we can develop that kind of mentality to win tough games, to get to finals. I think we’ve learned from some of the moments that slipped away from us, and tonight you could see the concentration of so many guys,” Bradley said afterward. “There’s a sense that we’re going in the right direction, that we understand better what big games are all about. We still want to try to play the best football we can, but in different moments in these kind of games, your ability to be smart, to be aggressive, to know how to deal with tough situations, all these different things come into play.”
América’s gamesmanship would be neutralized with a different sort of guile.
“At halftime, we felt that we could still win the game,” Bradley said.
Vela scored twice in the opening moments of the second stanza, América’s Luis Reyes hit the self-destruct button and was sent off for a pointless two-footed tackle (meltdowns are another CCL staple), and LAFC’s Latif Blessing scored in stoppage time to provide the final 3–1 margin. Los Angeles was through to the final, where it will face another Mexican power, Tigres UANL, on Tuesday night.
This is the seventh time an MLS side has advanced to the regional final, but the first three—the LA Galaxy in 1997 and 2000 and D.C. United in 1998—largely are ignored because Concacaf renamed its top club tournament in 2008. Even MLS is selling those original achievements short. The three finalists since the rebrand—Real Salt Lake in 2011, Montreal Impact in 2015 and Toronto FC in 2018—all lost.
The reason those early achievements are relevant is because of the pandemic, which forced Concacaf to pause this season’s CCL in March. When it resumed this month in Orlando, the home-and-home knockout formula was replaced by a single-elimination tournament at one U.S. site—in other words, the same format that was used in 1997–2000. Because of that, the context surrounding LAFC’s run to Tuesday’s final changes. It’s had to play on the road just once, losing, 2–0, at León in February before winning 3–0 at Banc of California Stadium (Vela scored twice that night as well). The CCL grind, attrition and atmosphere that has proven to be too much for MLS clubs to handle for multiple rounds for so many years isn’t a factor now.
That doesn’t diminish LAFC, which in knocking out León, and then Cruz Azul and América in Orlando, became the first MLS side to eliminate three Mexican teams in a single season. But it does mean that if LAFC beats Tigres, MLS or its supporters can’t really claim to have broken new ground or ended some kind of Concacaf hex. With a win, LAFC will have come much closer to matching what D.C. United and the Galaxy managed two decades ago than achieving what RSL, Montreal, TFC and so many Concacafed predecessors couldn’t. It also will be the first MLS team to enter the FIFA Club World Cup.
And so Tuesday’s final isn’t about how MLS stacks up against Liga MX. Until MLS clubs are surviving trips to Mexico and winning CCL regularly, it’ll still rank well behind. Instead, it’s about LAFC’s development under Bradley’s guidance and Vela’s inspiration, and how a talented team that coasted to the MLS Supporters’ Shield in 2019 has learned to win when the stakes are highest. It fell to the Houston Dynamo in the 2018 U.S. Open Cup semifinal and to the Seattle Sounders in last year’s Western Conference final, losing early leads in both games and faltering defensively. This season, it wasn’t healthy and in rhythm until now.
Bradley said Monday that he doesn’t expect Atuesta to be available against Tigres. Concacaf just lacks the processes, institutional dexterity and heritage of fairness to do the right thing and rescind the red card.
“The discussion is at a higher level than I’m involved with,” Bradley said.
It also faces a formidable opponent. Tigres was Mexico’s team of the 2010s, but like MLS, it still hasn’t conquered Concacaf. Despite its obvious talent and organizational stability, it’s lost three of the past four CCL finals. Tigres will be desperate to win Tuesday. It certainly has the talent to do so—French striker André-Pierre Gignac is tied with Vela for the competition lead with five goals. But if Tigres is willing to go further, to rely on something more than talent, LAFC has proven it can handle it.
“That mentality, that focus, on pushing in a game and not letting different things take you away from what you’re trying to do as a player or as a team, that’s a big-game mentality and that’s not always easy, because you get swept up in emotions and different situations,” Bradley said Monday. “You see that even on the highest levels. But I think it’s a sign that we’re getting more and more comfortable in these big games. We still have this confidence in terms of how we play and how we go about things.”