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Tigres's Wait Ends, But MLS's Goes On After LAFC's Turn for CCL Final Heartbreak

Tigres had fallen at the final hurdle three times before claiming its first Concacaf Champions League title, coming back to deny LAFC and MLS a landmark victory.

There was no controversy or scandal, no infuriating antics or traditional Concacaf shenanigans. This time, it simply was about Mexico’s team of the decade and its relentless and inevitable star striker, refusing to be denied a continental crown after years of agonizing disappointment.

MLS clubs know something about falling short in the Concacaf Champions League. So does Tigres UANL, the seven-time Liga MX champion that lost the tournament final in 2016, 2017 and 2019. After earning a fourth crack at the title, Tigres wasn’t going to be denied by Los Angeles FC, a talented and capable MLS side that just hadn’t paid similar international dues.

Trailing by one with a little more than 20 minutes remaining in Tuesday’s final, Tigres drew level on a header from veteran defensive stalwart Hugo Ayala, then won it all with an 84th-minute strike by the irrepressible André-Pierre Gignac, the Frenchman who’s made a home in Monterrey and delivered trophy after trophy. He finished the 2020 CCL with six goals, and the 2-1 win over LAFC will give Tigres the long-awaited chance to perform on the global stage at February’s FIFA Club World Cup. It’s a stage no MLS team has ever graced, and although LAFC came close, the pandemic and this season’s abbreviated CCL format probably was a factor in its advancement.

Bob Bradley's LAFC falls short in the Concacaf Champions League

Liga MX clubs now have won 15 straight Concacaf championships, and LAFC became the fourth MLS squad to fall at the final hurdle in the past decade. This year’s CCL, which was put on pause in March, resumed last week in Orlando in a manner that reflected the tournaments in 1998 (D.C. United) and 2000 (LA Galaxy) captured by MLS sides—a single-elimination event at a single U.S. venue.

LAFC came from behind to defeat Club León in a home-and-home, round-of-16 series 10 months ago but didn’t have to leave the country again, and it ousted Cruz Azul and Club América in successive matches at Exploria Stadium. MLS teams have won only eight of 46 two-leg series against Mexican opposition all-time, but have found a far more level playing field on home soil. Absent the forbidding atmosphere south of the border, LAFC proved to be very much the Mexicans’ equals this month.

And it was 20 minutes away from deservedly winning it all.

LAFC loses the 2020 CCL final to Tigres UANL
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In a frenetic, physical final highlighted by LAFC’s stubborn reluctance to concede possession or space, the third-year MLS club absorbed considerable physical punishment, maintained its collective composure and thrived where so many predecessors had faltered. 

LAFC wasn’t overawed by the occasion. It insisted on sticking to its game, attempting to play with purpose and pace while frustrating Tigres with its press. Gignac wasn’t a factor in the first half—there’d been reports he was struggling with a hamstring injury—and after some nervy opening moments, LAFC was the better team. There were a lot fouls but nothing egregious or out of control, although LAFC may have deserved a penalty kick when Latif Blessing was taken down in the 17th minute. Blessing was starting in place of suspended midfield linchpin Eduard Atuesta, who was controversially sent off in the semifinal.

LAFC maintained its momentum after halftime and broke through in the 61st, when Mark-Anthony Kaye hit a well-timed, floating ball toward the right post that MLS Golden Boot-winner Diego Rossi chipped into the left-side netting. Four minutes later, LAFC talisman Carlos Vela nearly doubled his team’s lead but saw his goal-bound bid blocked by a Tigres defender. That appeared to wake up the favorites. The reinvigorated Mexicans tied the score in the 72nd. They then forged ahead when Luis Rodríguez, the marauding right back who brought down Blessing, raced through a disintegrating LAFC midfield before feeding a wide-open Gignac for the backbreaker.

Andre-Pierre Gignac scores for Tigres in the CCL final

“I thought for 70 minutes, we made the game very hard for them. It’s a choppy game. It’s not always that the football’s perfect, but I thought our way of going after them and pushing the game for 70 minutes was quite good,” an admittedly disappointed Bob Bradley, LAFC’s manager, said following the final.

“Our team’s growing, you know,” he continued. “We played some really good football in some of these games, and as I said, I thought our way of going after the game tonight was real good. In some moments not our sharpest, but still the mentality to play in a final and push the game, that's important. And so we end in a really disappointing way.”

Disappointment is a tried-and-true tradition for MLS teams in Concacaf play, although this year’s result shouldn’t add too much to that 20-year narrative. The past week was about LAFC's commitment to a style of soccer, its journey with Bradley and Vela at the controls and the way it rebounded from a disappointing MLS campaign to give it a go in Orlando. Drawing any larger conclusions about how MLS compares to Liga MX, especially absent the home-and-away format used in previous CCL seasons, is pretty much impossible and certainly wasn’t worth Bradley’s effort.

“Those are just not things that I could care less about, all right? I know those are things everybody wants to write about,” he said when asked about parity, or lack thereof, between the two leagues. “Anybody who watches us can judge what our football’s all about, what we’re about as a club, how we compete, that part of it. We’re proud of the way we try to go about things. I say all the time that we’re still trying to grow. Tonight’s another night where you have to take this lesson and try to grow from it. And so those are the things that I focus on, and how everybody else assesses it and looks at it, I have no idea.”