Did they know something we didn't? They must have.
I spent the entire week leading up to LAFC's second leg with León speaking to players that weren't just loose, they were confident. Maybe they were even a bit defiant. Like they knew with absolute certainty that overturning a two-goal deficit against one of Liga MX's best teams wasn't just doable, it was the only option.
I'll admit, I can be somewhat gullible. Like a lot of fans, I want to believe there's an innate swagger in professional athletes. That they refuse to lose against all odds.
Then I heard this from Bob Bradley 24 hours before the match. And I knew I was all in.
"You earn your way into the [Concacaf] Champions League. It's not something that just happens," Bradley said in his press conference prior to the second leg. "And now when you get there, you try to celebrate what it means to be there. The way you celebrate that is the way you play."
On a Thursday night in Los Angeles, in front of a sold-out Banc of California Stadium crowd, LAFC celebrated what it is as a Club.
The team played as if only that night mattered and as an extension of the Supporters in the stadium that went the 90-plus minutes with them. They took risks. They never let up. And they brought joy like few things can in this city.
Here are the takeaways, as LAFC advances to the CCL quarterfinals with a 3-0 win over León:
The 3252 set the tone before kickoff with a tifo honoring Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi. Set across a backdrop of purple with the Nos. 8 and 24 created by fans holding up white placards, the tifo proved prophetic.
The mentality that LAFC had from the opening kickoff was Kobe Bryant-esque. There was a singular focus from all 11 players on the pitch. LAFC played without fear and executed in pivotal moments.
It was a performance for Los Angeles that Kobe would have enjoyed.
Push The Tempo
After looking like a team fresh out of preseason in León, LAFC completely flipped the script in LA.
In the first leg, LAFC let its opponent dictate the speed of the match. As a result, the Black & Gold were a step behind all too often. In the home leg, it was León looking to catch its collective breath, as LAFC was everywhere on the pitch.
LAFC gave León no quarter. The midfield found ways to swarm the opponent. Through excellent offensive marking from LAFC, the likes of Luis Montes and Jean Meneses had little no spare time on the ball. And at times, they didn't look ready for the speed and tenacity at which LAFC closed them down.
As a result, LAFC pushed forward against León in ways they weren't able to in the first leg. We saw LAFC step up to León players as a cohesive unit and force turnovers. By stepping in unison, the Black & Gold created more and more transition moments going forward on the night and León simply couldn't cope with the pace of play.
And there was an all-around focus that emanated from LAFC. They just keep moving forward. When they could have put their heads down after a bad call, they sprinted to the next challenge instead. They refused to let one play define the match because they knew another moment to change the match would follow. And they did it all as a unit from the opening whistle. It was the type of mental performance we don't often see in this competition from MLS sides.
By taking the initiative and forcing León to retreat, LAFC found ways to integrate fullbacks Chiqui Palacios and Tristan Blackmon into the attack.
Both players were excellent on both sides of the ball on Thursday night. And both ended the night with assists.
Palacios helped open the scoring by providing width via an overlap with Brian Rodríguez. The enterprising run forced the León backline to defend facing its own goal and Carlos Vela took up an excellent position in front of the near post for Palacios to play in behind.
Vela was the beneficiary of Blackmon's assist as well. As Diego Rossi pulled a León center back away from goal, Blackmon recognized the space on the flank. Vela's awareness of the opening created by Rossi was timed to perfection and Blackmon sent a perfectly weighted pass into the area for his captain to finish the second goal on the night.
We saw very little of these two going forward in León just because they had to spend so much time defending. But tonight, with LAFC dictating where the match was played, both picked their spots and read spaces well to create the opening two goals.
Use Of Touches
In Mexico, León looked overly comfortable because of how little they had to move out of position. It was a different story with the way LAFC controlled things at the Banc.
The midfield's use of touches opened so many avenues for LAFC. By getting close to León and refusing to give an inch, the trio of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, and Eduard Atuesta was able to turn León over often and find the next pass to keep the side moving forward into the spaces created.
The LAFC midfield made great use of its dribbling in those moments to force the nearest León defender into stepping up. It was almost a domino effect after that, as another León would have to step forward to cover. That created a lot more space for LAFC's front three. Unlike the match in Mexico, the LAFC attackers were able to get on the ball moving into space, with their heads up and running room in front of León's backline.
Atuesta, in particular, was excellent at bypassing the first bit of pressure and releasing a teammate into space. While Kaye and Blessing did well in turning over León players - Luis Montes is going to have nightmares of Blessing - on countless occasions and finding the right spaces to receive passes with their bodies positioned to go forward quickly.
A Chapter In LAFC History
Sometimes when I hear people talking about what's lacking in football in America, I can't help but think they're missing exactly what we saw on Thursday night.
All this talk of structure, talent, etc. and not enough talk about unifying moments. In other words, those times when the Club and its fanbase write a story in its history together.
Thursday night was one of those moments when it felt like the team on the pitch and the fans in the stands were one.
It's a moment that will hopefully define LAFC and its Supporters going forward. And one that when we look back on the history of the Club and all the accolades that come with it, we can point back to that day as a foundational piece.
What a way to introduce yourself to the Concacaf Champions League.
And now, the story continues.