Pack your bags. And don’t forget your passports. We’re headed to Mexico.
On Monday evening, Mexico City was the site of the 2020 Concacaf Champions League draw. The live event featured a buildup of near-epic proportions – a three-hour pre-draw show preceded an event that took half an hour to select its first team. But the prolonged process paid off in a big way as the final matchup in the Round of 16 was announced with LAFC taking on Club León.
Easily the best matchup of the round, we’ll see the 2019 Supporters’ Shield winners taking on 2019 Liga MX Clausura runners-up. Carlos Vela will return to play on Mexican soil for the first time since an El Tri friendly against Scotland prior to the 2018 World Cup. And LAFC will get its first taste of international tournament competition.
First things first, if you aren’t sure what we’re talking about here, where have you been!? The Concacaf Champions League is a continental competition featuring the best of the best from around North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The tournament’s winner goes on to play in the FIFA Club World Cup against the likes of the UEFA Champions League winner. We’re talking the world’s stage and powerhouses Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, etc.
Still confused? We’ve got you covered.
Next, the exact dates of the two-legged matchup with León are still to be determined. We do know LAFC will travel to face León between Feb. 18-20. The return leg will be Feb. 25-27 at Banc of California Stadium. So, plan accordingly.
Finally, in addition to learning its first opponent in the competition, LAFC’s potential path to the final was laid out via the draw. Teams in the CCL are placed into a set bracket with two sides. On LAFC’s side of the bracket are three Liga MX teams, two Central American teams, an MLS team, and the tournament’s only Caribbean team.
Back to LAFC’s Round of 16 opponent. León has won Liga MX seven times in its history. Fondly known as La Fiera (the Wild Beasts), León finished runners-up to Tigres in Liga MX’s 2019 Clausura – León’s ticket into the CCL.
More recently, León finished the 2019 Apertura regular season in second position. But Ignacio Ambriz’s side crashed out at the hands of seventh-place Morelia in the first round of the Apertura playoffs.
What León will look like when LAFC travels to face them in February is still very much in flux. Leading scorers JJ Macías and Ismael Sosa are on loan from Chivas and Tigres respectively. It’s already being reported that Chivas want to bring back Macías to replace the soon to be departing Alan Pulido, the 2019 Apertura top scorer.
Captain Luis Montes led his team with five assists during the 2019 Apertura. The attacking midfielder is a Top 10 all-time goal scorer for León and along with Ángel Mena and Joel Campbell can carry the load of the second-highest scoring team in Liga MX during the 2019 Apertura despite what happens to Macías and Sosa.
Regardless of what the Guanajuato-based team looks like come February, LAFC’s biggest obstacle might be the scheduling. While León will be about a month and a half into its season, LAFC will be playing in its first competitive matches since late October of 2019. The discrepancy in schedules has always been a major hurdle for MLS sides in the CCL first round but hasn’t proved insurmountable. The Houston Dynamo, Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls, and Sporting KC all advanced to the quarterfinals in last year’s CCL – SKC defeated Liga MX side Toluca via a 5-0 aggregate score in the Round of 16.
But if the Black & Gold advances past León into the quarterfinals, LAFC's path doesn’t get much easier. They’re likely to face yet another Liga MX side in Cruz Azul. The 2018 Apertura runners-up are favorites against Jamaica’s Portmore United.
Should LAFC manage to slay a second Liga MX giant, the gauntlet that is LAFC’s side of the bracket continues. Likely waiting for LAFC in the semifinal would be Club América, Mexico’s most successful side and a current 2019 Apertura playoff finalist - although Atlanta United might have something to say about that, having defeated América in the 2019 Campeones Cup and coming off a 2019 U.S. Open Cup victory.
Suffice it to say, if LAFC navigates its way through the bracket and into the CCL final, it will be duly earned. And in said final, likely waiting for them would be a fourth Mexican foe. Last year’s CCL runners-up Tigres have been dominant in Liga MX, winning four titles in the last five years, and are the favorites on the opposite side of the 2019 CCL bracket.
Prior to Monday’s draw, LAFC EVP and CBO Larry Freedman was asked what it means for LAFC to be taking part in its first international competition. After calling it a “huge honor” to play against some of the best in the region, Freedman summed up LAFC’s approach to the competition.
“This is super important to us. It’s super important to our fan base,” Freedman said. “And what I’ve learned in my time with coach Bob Bradley and our general manager John Thorrington is we play for keeps.
“So whether it’s U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and now, Champions League, we are in it to win it.”
It’s with that ambitious mindset LAFC embark on the Club’s first international competition. The path to becoming the first MLS team to unseat Liga MX’s dominance in this competition was never going to be easy. Maybe it’ll take something as extraordinary as defeating all four Mexican sides in the competition.
Either way, LAFC and its Supporters won’t fret too much regardless of prospective opponents. Because when a trophy is at the end of the line, they’re simply in it to win.