Regional bragging rights at stake as Tigres face LAFC
The Concacaf Champions League will crown a first-time champion Tuesday night in Orlando, Florida. Either the Tigres of Liga MX will end their CCL futility with their first international trophy or MLS newbie LAFC will announce their bona fides in only their third year of existence.
A Tigres victory would extend Liga MX dominance as Mexican clubs have won the previous 14 CCL tournaments, but the Monterrey-based club is 0 for 3 in CCL finals.
An LAFC win would be a first for MLS since the regional tournament was rejiggered into the current format. The last time an MLS club was crowned Concacaf champion was back on Jan. 21, 2001, when the LA Galaxy defeated Olimpia of Honduras in what was then called the Concacaf Champions Cup.
LAFC chasing Liga MX Grand Slam
A win in the final would give LAFC a quartet of wins over Mexican clubs as they have already dispensed with three Liga MX teams en route to their first CCL final.
The Black and Gold defeated current Liga MX champs León in the Round of 16 back in February. Last week, the Bob Bradley-led club eliminated Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals and advanced to the final by knocking aside América 3-1 despite playing the entire second half with 10 men.
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In Saturday night’s semifinal, LAFC erased a 1-0 first-half deficit when Carlos Vela scored twice in the first 90 seconds after the break. Latif Blessing shut the door on the Aguilas in minute 90+5.
The Tigres cruised past Olimpia 3-0 in their semifinal thanks to two penalty kick conversions by André-Pierre Gignac and an own goal by Elvin Oliva (off a shot by Gignac).
Gignac and Vela are the headliners in CCL Final (and tied for the Golden Boot with 5 goals each) but the teams’ contrasting styles should provide the discerning soccer fan with considerable appeal.
The Tigres – the losing finalist in last year’s CCL and the third time the club came in second in the Concacaf region’s top club tournament – play a patient possession game with Gignac in the point of attack, while LAFC prefers a vertical approach fueled by one-touch passing and Vela’s playmaking skills.
Coach “Tuca” Ferretti and his veteran Tigres team are content to yo-yo the ball back-and-forth probing their opponent’s weaknesses and set the tempo. With Gignac prowling around the box, the wingers – usually Javier Aquino and Luis Quiñones – work the flanks, probing for space in the offensive third in tandem with the playmaker (Leo Fernández has been playing this role of late).
This arrangement could change if “Tuca” opens with a 5-man back line. Whatever he decides, the fullbacks will be key to stopping Vela and the speedy LAFC attack. Midfielders Guido Pizarro and Rafa Carioca will likely press to the outside since Vela typically starts out wide.
LAFC plays physical defense but that shouldn’t bother the Tigres too much (unless ref Mario Escobar of Guatemala allows play to get too rough). Coach Bradley typically plays a high line, but his team can also settle back and play a counter-attacking game. The latter is more likely Tuesday night since the Tigres will try to play keep-away.
LAFC defenders Eddie Segura and Jesús Murillo will have their hands full with Gignac. The Frenchman will not be intimidated by rough play and he is capable of getting off shots at the drop of a beret.
The MLS club’s speed could be the determining factor in the Final, but they will miss midfield general Eduard Atuesta who will miss the Final after his ejection in the semifinal.
The Liga MX team has a distinct advantage between the pipes. Goalie Nahuel Guzmán is one of the best goalies in Liga MX, helping the Tigres win four league titles since joining the team in 2014.
Kenneth Vermeer has starred for the Dutch national team and helped Ajax win four Eredivisie titles from 2010 to 2014, then won another with Feyenoord in 2017. But if the game comes down to penalty kicks, my money is on Nahuel.