There’s a trophy on the line. That’s the main thing to know about LAFC’s Campeones Cup date with Tigres on Wednesday night at BMO Stadium. The cup is tall, slender, and gold, and has a shiny number “1” etched into it. But as LAFC defender Jesús Murillo put it last week, “Every player wants trophies.” No matter what they look like.
“This is a journey,” added fellow center-back, Giorgio Chiellini. “Starting with León, we didn’t play very well, we deserved to lose. We played Monterrey (another strong Liga MX team, which LAFC faced in Leagues Cup on August 11). We lost but to be honest, we deserved to win … Now we want to show that our journey is continuing the right way. We want to win this game.”
Campeones Cup bills itself as “One Game, One Champion, One Cup,” which sums up the competition perfectly.
Unlike the other trophies LAFC has pursued in 2023 – Leagues Cup, Concacaf Champions League, U.S. Open Cup – Campeones Cup is not a tournament. LAFC earned its spot in Wednesday’s match not by winning a series of knockout games but by winning the 2022 MLS Cup final.
As the reigning champions of Liga MX, Tigres earned its Campeones Cup bid a bit differently. Mexico’s top division divides each season into two competitions – an Apertura (“opening”) and Clausura (“closing”). Tigres won the Clausura championship earlier this year, then defeated the Apertura winner, Pachuca, in the Campeón de Campeones match in June 2023, earning its place on the Liga MX throne and booking its trip to Wednesday’s match against LAFC.
LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini offered a much simpler explanation for all this last week: “Campeones Cup means you are the best in North America.”
MLS clubs have won the last three editions of Campeones Cup. A year ago, NYCFC, the 2021 MLS Cup champs, defeated Liga MX victors Atlas, 2-0. The only time a Mexican club has won the five-year-old competition was in 2018 when Tigres defeated Toronto 3-1 in the first Campeones Cup.
Founded in 1960, Club de Fútbol Tigres de la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (Tigres UANL for short)is the younger of two Liga MX clubs in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. The older club, C.F. Monterrey, plays its home games about 25 minutes from Tigres’ stadium, which is closer to the city’s center.
LAFC and its southern California neighbor have their own emotion-soaked derby match. Tigres and Monterrey have El Clásico Regio, an all-consuming event that dominates life in the state of Nuevo León each time it comes around.
Just as BMO Stadium neighbors USC, Tigres’ home ground, Estadio Universitario, sits on the urban campus of the 90-year-old college that makes up part of the club’s name.
Monterrey, which is based near the suburbs, has had greater long-term success, while Tigres has won more trophies recently. Among Tigres’ recent titles was the 2020 Concacaf Champions League, which Las Aurizules (the golden-blue ones) won in a thrilling final over LAFC in the pandemic bubble in Orlando. Four current LAFC players started that game three years ago: Carlos Vela, Diego Palacios, Jesús Murillo, and Eddie Segura. (Three homegrown players – Erik Dueñas, Cristian Torres, and Tony Leone – made the trip but did not play.)
The final was decided in a single leg inside the empty Exploria Stadium. Holding a 1-0 advantage with about 20 minutes left, LAFC appeared headed toward its second major trophy (having won the MLS Supporters’ Shield the year prior) before it surrendered an equalizer on a headed corner kick and an 83rd-minute goal from Tigres’ star forward André-Pierre Gignac (who like Vela wears number 10, made his name in Europe, and is still the face of his team). Tigres clung to its 2-1 lead until the full-time whistle, when most of the club’s yellow-clad players fell to their knees and wept, having finally claimed the CCL trophy on their fourth try.
Both clubs are currently in the middle of their regular seasons. Two hours after LAFC’s Saturday match in Philadelphia ended in a 0-0 draw, Tigres and Monterrey kicked off the 133rd Clásico Regio in a jam-packed Estadio Universitario. Goals from Gignac in the 29th and 59th minutes gave Tigres a 2-0 advantage, and then 23-year-old winger Diego Lainez sealed the game with a 71st-minute strike that sent the stadium into a yellow-and-blue frenzy.
Manager Robert Dante Siboldi (a former Tigres goalkeeper) promptly subbed Gignac, Lainez, and fellow Liga MX All-Star Luis Enrique Quiñones out of the game, no doubt with Wednesday’s game in Los Angeles on his mind – perhaps wary that the spectacle and the heightened emotion of the 3-0 derby win could drain his side.
LAFC knows a little bit about compressed schedules and emotional fatigue. “Both sides aren’t going to have much time to prepare,” said LAFC defender Aaron Long, who played all 90 minutes against the Union, “and [Tigres plays] a different style than what we face on a week-to-week basis.”
But Wednesday night figures to be one of those games where any lethargy among the players will vanish at kickoff, and the focus will shift with laser-like precision onto each other, and to the trophy that the winner will thrust toward the sky at night’s end.
LAFC hosts the 2023 Campeones Cup on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at BMO Stadium against Tigres UANL. The match is scheduled to kick off at 8 p.m. PT and will be broadcast on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, 710 AM ESPN Los Angeles, and 980 La Mera. Mera (ESP).