Match Recap

TAKEAWAYS | On To The Champions League Final After Finishing Off Philadelphia 5/2/23

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I’m never this confident. Never!

Ask me my prediction on or before matchday and I become a magician. I’ll distract you with some sleight-of-hand jargon. Divert your gaze from the result to the process. And voila! I’ve left you thinking you’ve just heard a prediction, but you don't know how I did it.

But not this time.

To anyone that asked leading up to the second leg of LAFC’s semifinal with the Philadelphia Union, I said “I’m not stressed at all. LAFC wins this convincingly.”

Not even saying it to brag after LAFC’s 3-0 victory. There’s no basking in telling this to you now… after LAFC’s 3-0 win to advance to the Concacaf Champions League final. (I had to type it again. It’s so nice.)

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I’m telling you now only because my reasoning was sound. My thought was that Philly played its best 90 minutes of football (against a good team) in 2023, while LAFC played some of its worst football in Leg 1. LAFC even went down a goal. And yet, the Black & Gold didn’t lose. Even better, they left Philly with an away goal. But still, you knew LAFC could play better. And they probably would. And they were coming home to Los Angeles.

Everything went right for Philly in the first leg. But they only had a 1-1 draw at home to show for it. Which is pretty much the gist of my Takeaways from the 1-1 draw in Leg 1:

Jim Curtin’s team has to be wondering what they have to do to finally get one over on LAFC. Because on Wednesday night, they made that match into exactly what they wanted.

Curtain said this after leg two.

“You look at the opponent [LAFC], its probably the best team, you could argue, in our league’s history.” 
LAFC is headed to its second CCL Final. It’s time to take care of business. Here are the Takeaways from LAFC’s 3-0 win in the CCL semifinal leg two:

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Sticking With The Right Tweaks

One bit I would have added to my reasoning for my overt confidence: Steve Cherundolo’s ability to make the right changes at halftime… and now he had a week to prepare.

Call this the exception to the rule. But never was the cliché “the final whistle of leg one is only halftime” more on point. Because this match felt like Cherundolo homing in an adjustment to give his team an edge the rest of the way.

We saw it take root in the second half of that first leg. Cherundolo flipped his midfield from a “one with two in front” to a “two with one in front” or “dual 6s” positioning.

It gave LAFC a foothold in leg one. In leg two, it was the difference maker.

Ilie Sánchez and Kellyn Acosta played like they were joined by a rubber band. They flexed and stretched but never lost contact with each other. They provided so much cover to LAFC’s backline when dealing with Philly’s direct play. With Acosta at his side, Sánchez, as the defensive midfielder, had shorter distances to react to when dealing with second balls. The result was cleaner recoveries by LAFC and fewer second chances for the Union.

The formation change also limited those second balls at their source. Pushing Timothy Tillman higher up the pitch as #10 gave LAFC one more presser on the front line.

Where the Union’s center backs had time to pick up their heads and pinpoint a pass in leg one, there was an LAFC attacker closing them down in leg two.

Ultimately, LAFC had greater control of the match for large periods. Leg one was a Philly-style match. Leg two was Cherundolo’s response.

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Set Pieces, Set Pieces, Set Pieces

Again, an LAFC-Philadelphia match hinges on set pieces.

It’s nice to be on the good side. For a couple of years, LAFC fans knew that deflating feeling that set-piece goals conceded gave a team. It’s much better on the other side.

Since Cherundolo’s arrival, set pieces have become a weapon that LAFC can almost count on in big games.

Timothy Tillman opened the scoring in the 13th minute, following up pinpoint corner off the foot of Carlos Vela and onto the head of Sánchez despite Andre Blake making an incredible save on the initial shot. Another goal off a set piece. And a goal that set the tone for the match.

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You Can’t Do That

Despite going up 1-0 early, LAFC needed a few fines saves from John McCarthy to keep it that way. LAFC had both hands on the wheel. But you have to give Philly credit, the Union’s style and execution can still jerk a match side to side at times.

Olivier Mbaizo’s second yellow card was the turning point. It was so avoidable though.

Just moments after his teammate Mikael Uhre was shown a yellow for a tactical foul, Mbaizo forced LAFC’s Jesús David Murillo into a similar foul. Mbaizo took it a step further by rushing to shove Murillo, thus earning himself a yellow in the process.

When Denis Bouanga cut down the touchline with a step on Mbaizo and space behind the Union backline in the second half, that was the time to give a foul and take a yellow. Mbaizo didn’t have a yellow to give though.

Again, credit to Philly. Curtin’s team pushed past the red card in the 59th minute to still trouble LAFC a few more times but the tie was effectively over. LAFC found more time and space on the ball and eventually, more pathways to goal.

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Chiqui Leads The Way

Seriously lacking in the first leg for LAFC was any kind of tempo. They could defend furiously for periods, turn Philadelphia over, and rush to attempt a counterattack, but rarely did LAFC do anything at a pace that suited the Black & Gold.

Enter Chiqui Palacios.

When you can’t find time and space for your attackers because the opponent is so intent on marking them out of existence, you need a special weapon. The LAFC left back was excellent at progressing his team forward by carrying the ball.

With Philly so concerned about LAFC’s attacking quartet, Palacios found the soft spots in the Union’s formation and gobbled up valuable yardage with the ball at his feet. Eventually, as the defender ventured closer to Philly’s goal, a Union player had to decamp to slow his progress. That freed LAFC attackers to make runs off Palacios, who had a strong passing game in the final third and gave LAFC the opportunity to finish more plays with shots or balls out of play versus the multitude of turnovers they committed in leg one.

When you finish plays with shots or the ball out of play, you have time to regroup, and the Union’s style is predicated on disorganized opponents. Palacios gave LAFC the ability to go forward but also afforded them the time to recover. Just what LAFC needed against an aggressive Philadelphia team.

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Where To?

Monterrey for revenge? León to see an old acquaintance?

It doesn’t matter. Tigres or León, the CCL trophy is outstanding in LAFC’s cabinet. And after winning MLS Cup, the team and its supporters have a taste for more silverware.

A friendly reminder though, finals aren’t a given. Try to enjoy it if you can. Not every season will you come off a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double, go undefeated into May in the league, and reach the final of your confederation’s top competition.

But that’s exactly where LAFC fans are right now. And it feels pretty, pretty good.

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