Nine months ago John McCarthy came off the bench late in a tie game to win a trophy for LAFC, making two saves in a penalty-kick shootout, then raising the MLS Cup at BMO Stadium. Wednesday, with a chance to lift another prize at home, McCarthy’s luck ran out.
This time all four shots got by him and Mexico’s Tigres did the Cup-raising, defeating LAFC 4-2 on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw in regulation in the Campeones Cup final.
LAFC began the season with a chance to win an unprecedented six trophies, twice the number any MLS team has ever won in a year. So far it’s 0 for 5, and LAFC’s inability to beat a Mexican team is a big reason the team is still empty-handed seven months into the season.
But Wednesday’s loss was far more frustrating and painful than the others. LAFC gutted its way through a second half in which it was a man down for more than 20 minutes and lost an apparent game-winning goal from Denis Bouanga to a rules violation. That sent the game to penalties, where Tigres keeper Nahuel Guzmán stuffed shots from Timothy Tillman and Ryan Hollingshead.
Meanwhile McCarthy, LAFC’s penalty-save specialist, came off the bench cold in the final minute of the scoreless game and did not make a stop, allowing Jesús Angulo to seal the win for Tigres with a left-footed shot that went under the keeper to end the four-round shootout.
Tigres is the second Liga MX club to beat LAFC in a tournament final this season, joining León, which swept the reigning MLS Cup champions in the two-leg CONCACAF Champions League final in June. LAFC also lost to Monterrey in the quarterfinals of the Leagues Cup last month. Add to that a loss to Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup’s round of 16 and the fact the team was mathematically eliminated from contention for the Supporters’ Shield earlier this month, and it’s been a lost season so far for LAFC.
But if Mexico’s Liga MX has its fingerprints all over the wreckage of LAFC’s season, it’s only partially responsible for the results. The real culprit may be a packed schedule that has seen LAFC play a season record 44 games already this year — and the MLS regular season still has a month to go.
For LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, the load is intolerable and unsustainable. MLS will have to loosen its salary cap and roster rules going forward if it is to compete on equal terms with Mexico’s biggest teams, which are far deeper.
“We are not equipped enough for all these competitions,” Cherundolo said. “Everyone in the organization is tired. The status quo is not going to work.”
That fatigue is a big reason why LAFC has won just once in its last seven games after a start that saw it lose just three of its first 20. It’s why the team has failed to score in four of its last five games and hasn’t had a goal in 276 minutes in all competition. It’s why LAFC, which has traveled more than 54,000 miles this season, enough to circumnavigate to globe twice, is running on fumes with the MLS playoffs, its last chance at a trophy, looming on the horizon.
Wednesday’s physical game was played largely in the midfield, where Tigres had the best of a scoreless first half, then came out late for the second 45 minutes, leaving LAFC waiting on the field for the match to resume. Six minutes after it did, Tigres lost an appeal for a handball in the LAFC penalty area, arguably the team’s most dangerous scoring opportunity of the first hour.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Crisitian Olivera, meanwhile, tested Guzmán twice early in the second half, but the Tigres’ keeper turned away both shots. The game appeared to take a turn shortly after the second save, though, when LAFC’s Diego Palacios drew his second yellow caution of the match for a rough challenge on Tigres’ Sebastián Córdova, leaving LAFC to finish the match with 10 men.
It almost overcame that, with Bouanga beating Guzmán cleanly to the left corner 15 minutes later. But Canadian referee Drew Fischer waved the goal off, saying the ball was moving when LAFC’s Giorgio Chiellini restarted play when it should have been still.
“The team did everything we asked of them. Just the goal was missing,” Cherundolo complained. “Well, not really. But we know what happened there.”
“My worst fear is when referees change the result of the game. Which is a shame,” he continued.
However, he said the disappointment might actually fuel his team down the stretch.
“I’m not concerned with this group. They’re hungry for more,” he said. “This should actually piss them off, which should help.”
Tigres lost its man advantage minutes later when defender Rafael Carioca was given a straight red, evening the sides. After that, both teams seemed content to let the game go to penalties with Cherundolo subbing on McCarthy for starter Maxime Crepeau in the seventh minute of stoppage time for the shootout.
Tigres, which won the inaugural Campeones Cup, is the only team from either country to play in the final twice. Its victory Wednesday ended a three-game MLS winning streak in the game, which debuted in 2018 as part of a growing partnership between the MLS and Liga MX. The game matches the champions of the two countries soccer leagues in a winner-take-all final, one LAFC qualified for by winning last November’s MLS Cup behind McCarthy’s heroics. But because the Mexican league has two tournaments each year, Tigres, the Clausura winner, had to beat Pachuca, the Apertura winner, in a June playoff to earn its invitation.
Wednesday’s match marked the second time LAFC has lost to Tigres with a trophy on the line, the first coming in the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League final, which was played before an empty stadium in neutral Orlando, Fla., because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These matches,” Cherundolo said, “make us better.”