Match Recap

TAKEAWAYS | LAFC Falls To León In The Final - 6/4/23

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Marco Garcés said it when he joined the Max + Vince Podcast in the week leading up to the Concacaf Champions League final, and Steve Cherundolo said after the match.

“This game is not about, I said it before, this game is not about tactics,” Cherundolo told the media in his press conference after the final. “It’s about moments and mentality. And in the right moments, León was better.”

Over 180 minutes in the CCL final, León was better. But if you’re looking to pick a fight about a region’s football being disrespected – a very real thing that happens – you’re in the wrong place. (Garcés and Cherundolo know a thing or two about football here, and they respect it.)

Tactics are great. As a self-avowed and certified football nerd, I love them. We’ve made great strides in our identification of tactics and the way we talk about them both in the media and public sphere. But in our pursuit of understanding, we tend to forget that tactics are just one piece of the puzzle.

Take two equally talented teams. I’ll give you a tactics board and all the magnets in the world. You give me the in-form players that are fit, ready, together, and mentally tough, I’m going to win nine times out of 10.

Tactics can give you an edge, but they aren’t magic. A sound game plan will get only get you so far. It’s the players that win games. Let’s not forget it’s a sport of low scoring, played by 11 players on both sides with their own volition to solve countless problems over the course of 90 almost-totally-continuous minutes.

That’s not to say Nicholás Larcamón isn’t a fantastic coach. He is. And the reason he is comes down to his ability to not only coach tactics but also have his teams ready to play in the most demanding circumstances through training and principles and man-management and on and on.

In the CCL final, León leaned into what they do best. They made it difficult for LAFC and they executed when their moments arrived. They’re the champions of North America. León players won this trophy. Not tactics.

Here are my Takeaways from LAFC’s 1-0 defeat in the second leg of the CCL final:

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Formation Change

Wait, I just ranted about tactics and now I’m starting out with a formation change? Ok, you got me. But first, formations aren’t tactics. They’re starting points. And it’ll come full circle, I promise.

The first big decision of the night happened before kickoff. Steve Cherundolo deviated from his usual 4-3-3 formation in favor of a 5-2-3 or 3-4-3 or 3-2-5, depending on who had possession and where the ball was on the pitch. Starting points, remember!

“Just a little more control of the game and to defend the width a little better,” Cherundolo said in response to why he changed formation. “And to create a little more on the flanks.”

Which is exactly what happened.

Less than two minutes into the match, Cherundolo’s side created the biggest chance of the match. The Black & Gold won possession and countered to the left through Mateusz Bogusz. He combined in the wide area with Chiqui Palacios, who was pushed forward as a wingback in the formation change, and Palacios’s early ball across the box pitched out Dénis Bouanga in the center of the box from about 10 yards out.

There’s no polite way to put it: Bouanga missed a ball he has been smacking into the net all season. LAFC would have been level on the aggregate and the match would have played out very differently.

In switching his formation, Cherundolo also made room for Giorgio Chiellini. The three center backs dealt with León’s direct threat and helped LAFC maintain a territorial advantage for the first 20 minutes of the match.

It was a breakdown that led to the only goal of the match, as Iván Moreno was left in acres of space out wide. And even then, as Cherundolo put it, the goal was “soft” i.e. LAFC could have dealt with it.

Was it the right tactical approach? There are good points on either side. But ultimately, it came down to a moment.

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Stars Have To Be Stars

If it’s not all about tactics. And we’re talking about moments. Moments of intense pressure with everything on the line. You need your best players to arrive in those moments and execute.

He ended the tournament as the leading scorer but Dénis Bouanga missed LAFC’s best chance in the second leg. Carlos Vela was unable to exert his usual masterful influence on a game beyond winning fouls and set-piece delivery, and he was replaced in the 64th minute.

On Sunday, LAFC’s best players didn’t perform at the high level that they did throughout the tournament, and the team picked the worst possible moment to have consecutive bad games.

Sometimes, it’s just that simple.

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The End

Everyone in Black & Gold is hurting right now. There is a myriad of reasons. Take your pick really.

But for me, as I contemplate my feelings of loss, it just feels like the end of something. The end of a tournament. The end of a chapter in the season – oddly coming in the middle and not at the conclusion. Possibly, the end of this group as we knew them.

LAFC very well could be back in the CCL next year. And they could even reach the final again. But it’s doubtful the team will look exactly the same.

This collection of players, extending back to MLS Cup, gave us so much joy. They’re like family. And probably the most likable bunch at any point in LAFC history. Even from the outside, you can tell they really care for each other.

We got one Hollywood ending and we wanted another. It just wasn’t meant to be. And change is inevitable with the way MLS is constituted.

But it’s not a failure.

“It’s not the right time, right moment, for that word,” Cherundolo said after the match. “I think this team has been fantastic over 18 months and has achieved so much. Put a lot of smiles on a lot of people’s faces and played some very good football. Competed for another final. Came up a little short.

“That’s competitive sports.”

Well said.

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