An unmarked Adonis Frías knocked home the winning goal in minute 79 to give León a 4-3 aggregate victory over Tigres, earning the Esmeraldas a spot in the Concacaf Champions League final against Carlos Vela and LAFC.
León overcame a 2-1 first-leg deficit with a glorious first half that featured two goals in the first 15 minutes, but Tigres evened up the aggregate score in minute 68.
If “los felinos” could have held on from there, the match would have gone to penalty kicks. But that’s when Frias took his star turn.
Off a corner kick, William Tesillo rose above Jesús Angulo in the middle of the box but only got a piece of Víctor Dávila’s cross. Fortunately, the ricochet found Frias who was all alone and the 25-year-old defender crisply slotted home to give “La Fiera” the victory, sending the Camp Nou faithful into ecstasy.
León reaches first-ever CCL final
In his first season in charge of “La Fiera,” Nicolás Larcamón guided The Green Machine to its first Concacaf final.
Back in 1993, León was runner-up to Costa Rica’s Saprissa in the Concacaf Champions Cup, the precursor to the current Champions League format, but the final round of that tournament was a round-robin.
As for Tigres, this was their fifth CCL semifinal but the first time they failed to advance to the final.
Things didn’t look good for the visitors early on as Tigres laid an egg in the first half and found themselves down 2-0 at the break.
León outworked and outclassed the northern giants, getting five shots on goal while not allowing the visitors to get any looks at Rodolfo Cota.
Just 3 minutes in, Sebastián Córdova found André-Pierre Gignac in the slot but the Frenchman hesitated just enough to allow a hustling Tesillo to deflect the attempt. That was the only shot Tigres managed during the first 45 minutes. (They would end the game with just three shots.)
Meanwhile, the Esmeraldas enjoyed 56% possession during the first half and were very effective at shutting down Tigres as they tried to move through the middle third of the pitch.
In minute 10, Fidel Ambriz found space about 5 yards above the box and let fly with his off foot, zipping a low shot inside Nahuel Guzmán’s far post. A golazo!
A couple minutes later, León was clamoring for a red card after Luis Quiñones clattered into Lucas Romero. Replays were inconclusive and ref Saíd Martínez showed Quiñones a yellow card.
Five minutes after that, León worked the ball down the right side with Byron Castillo sending a low cross to “El Plátano” Alvarado in the box but Guzmán came up with a lovely save. Unfortunately, the rebound popped up into the air and neither central defender reacted quickly enough, allowing Angel Mena to swoop in and bang the ball into the back of the net.
Things got even worse for Tigres after that. First midfield dynamo Fernando Gorriarán slipped on the turf and strained his groin, forcing an early substitution (22’).
Then, just before the half-hour mark, Quiñones committed another foul and this time replays seemed to suggest another yellow card should have been shown, but the Honduran referee declined to take action.
The Esmeraldas appeared to have control of the contest but in minute 68, the hosts fell asleep on a corner kick, failing to bring out a second defender when their were two players at the corner.
Tigres sub Raymundo Fulgencio tapped short to Carioca who returned to Fulgencio as he looped toward the box. Realizing the mistake, Víctor Dávila charged out to cut off Fulgencio but he faked a shot that got Dávila into the air then blasted into the far side upper 90.
The air went out of the stadium, but only for 10 minutes. Things got nervy after Frías put the hosts ahead, however, as Tigres spent a good portion of stoppage time firing crosses into the box in search of a lucky bounce. But it was not to be.