León vexes LAFC and takes CONCACAF Champions League title back from MLS to Mexico

León midfielder Lucas Di Yorio, right, celebrates with midfielder Elias Hernandez (11) after scoring a goal against Los Angeles FC during the first half in the second leg of a CONCACAF championship final soccer match, Sunday, June 4, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Lucas Di Yorio celebrates his goal in León's CONCACAF Champions League final clincher against LAFC. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

LOS ANGELES — When you’re playing a two-leg final, a lot of the strategy becomes about what you can do over 180 minutes and not just 90.

LAFC didn’t have a good showing in Mexico when they visited Club León for the opening part of the CONCACAF Champions League final. Escaping Guanajuato with just a 2-1 loss felt like somewhat of a win considering how badly they'd played. Head coach Steve Cherundolo guaranteed the performance at home for Leg 2 would be much better. In some aspects, it was.

But it wasn’t good enough. León grabbed the 1-0 win (3-1 on aggregate) to spoil the party in LA and take home the hardware.

It was a complete letdown for the Black and Gold, who were looking to repeat the Seattle Sounders’ success and become the second MLS club to win the tournament. But over those 180 minutes, León was the far better team.

"We got beat by a very good team," said Cherundolo. "They had the right answers over two matches and we came up short."

The Mexican side knew LAFC was going to come out firing, but they absorbed the opening minutes of intense energy at BMO Stadium. It might’ve been a different story if Denis Bouanga buried the golden chance he had two minutes into the match. Amid a cloud of smoke from the pregame festivities, Diego Palacios sent the ball into the box and Bouanga somehow seemed to time it wrong and completely whiffed.

León wasn’t really bothered by much LAFC tried to muster up, instead just waiting to pick apart the 3-4-3 formation Cherundolo decided to roll with instead of their traditional 4-3-3.

In the 20th minute they did just that when Fidel Ambríz found some space and sent Iván Moreno running into danger. He looked up, picked out his pass and delivered a perfect ball to Lucas Di Yorio in the box. It was a great build-up play for the visitors that LAFC goalkeeper John McCarthy probably should’ve saved. Instead, he was picking the ball out of his net as the aggregate deficit grew even larger.

It was a sign of what was to come for LAFC throughout the contest. Sometimes it just isn’t your day, and everything that could go wrong for the MLS club did.

They weren’t much of a threat offensively, and despite Cherundolo trying to tweak the lineup at half to spark something, LAFC came up empty. As time waned, chances were squandered. The sold-out crowd of 22,413 in attendance, which featured a notable León contingent, grew desperate.

In the 51st minute, Carlos Vela had a great chance with a free kick at the edge of the box — one of those opportunities that fans anticipate as they see him set up the ball on his left boot. But Vela hit the wall, then earned a yellow card for a foul instead.

Not long after, the León fans took over as the “olé” chant echoed around the stadium. When Vela was subbed out in the 64th minute, those chants turned into boos. It was LAFC’s captain, largely irrelevant throughout the final, being jeered by Mexican fans who have grown to love and hate him at the same time.

"Carlos wasn’t impacting the game at that moment," Cherundolo said. "And we needed a couple of goals."

LAFC tried to apply pressure in the final minutes, but goals were elusive. Cherundolo and Co. watched as hope slipped away, and the green shirts in the crowd began to celebrate.

For now, Seattle can breathe easy as the only MLS team to pull off the accomplishment. As much as the league continues to make strides, León outperforming LAFC is a testament to the Mexican dominance of this competition. Liga MX has now won it 14 times to MLS' one.

Before the game, MLS commissioner Don Garber said he couldn't wait until two MLS clubs were in the final next year.

Good luck with that.