LAFC falls to Liga MX’s Tigres in Campeones Cup

A penalty shootout ended the two reigning league champions’ one-off affair.

 (Marty O’Neill)

For the second time this season, Los Angeles Football Club has lost a cup final.

Having failed to lift the CONCACAF’s Champions League trophy against Club León earlier this year, LAFC fell to Liga MX giants Tigres on penalties Wednesday night in the one-off Campeones Cup, played on LAFC’s home turf, BMO Stadium. 

The Campeones Cup started in 2018 as an opportunity for the MLS Cup champion to face off against the Liga MX champion, determined by the playoff between the winners of Liga MX’s split seasons, the Clausura and Apertura. Before Wednesday, MLS teams led the series 3-1, with the last edition played in 2022 between New York City F.C. and Atlas.

Unfortunately for LAFC, Tigres also has a winning history in this competition, having captured the inaugural match in 2018 against Toronto F.C. 

If LAFC can take any solace in this result, the defense kept a third-consecutive clean sheet (penalties notwithstanding) against a formidable Tigres attack. Through nine Apertura matches, Tigres scored the third-most goals in Liga MX with 18. Leading the line for Tigres is André-Pierre Gignac, the former French national team striker who has become a legend in Mexico, scoring 196 goals in 346 games for Los Auriazules. Even at 37 years old, Gignac has five goals and two assists in six Liga MX starts this season.

The black and gold of LAFC kept him quiet, however, and arguably had the better chances in regular time. In the 42nd minute, winger Cristian Olivera cut inside dangerously from the left flank and flashed a right-footed shot across Nahuel Guzmán’s goal. He didn’t manage to wrap his foot around the ball, but if Olivera had executed the technique, Guzmán would have been in trouble. Olivera also tallied a shot on goal in the second half, this time with his left, low into Guzmán, who held his ground. 

MLS MVP candidate Denis Bouanga thought he had broken the deadlock in the 78th minute with a well-placed strike into the bottom right corner, but the referee called it back because of an improper free kick from center-back Giorgio Chiellini. 

Left-back Diego Palacios earning two yellow cards in 11 minutes didn’t help LAFC’s night either. For the second yellow — which sent LAFC down to 10 men — Palacios tripped Tigres forward Francisco Cordova from behind while Cordova ran toward Chiellini and LAFC’s other center-back Aaron Long. It was a careless foul that Palacios could’ve easily avoided by allowing his center-backs to deal with the threat. 

Tigres also ended the game with 10 players, allowing Palacios and LAFC to save face somewhat. Bouanga pressed Tigres midfielder Rafel Carioca on a heavy touch and won the ball cleanly, threatening to break into a one-on-one with the keeper Guzmán. To prevent Bouanga’s progress, Carioca committed a “tactical” foul by immediately falling on the Gabonese winger and bringing him to the ground. 

The two teams went straight to a penalty shootout with the score tied after 90 minutes, per Campeones Cup rules. With the game effectively on the line, MLS veteran right-back Ryan Hollingshead, who’s earned a reputation as a goalscorer even as a defender, hit his penalty straight down the middle to Guzmán. Hollingshead’s lame effort allowed Tigres defender Jesús Angulo to formally seal the match with his own tame strike, which LAFC’s backup John McCarthy — who was subbed in especially to save penalties — should have denied. 

LAFC’s attack may be lacking confidence, with just six goals scored in its previous seven fixtures, four of which came in one match against the Galaxy. That’s not ideal for a team that aspires to repeat as MLS Cup champions and has just four matches to shape up before the playoffs. 

After the match, Hollingshead berated the referee’s performance, particularly with regard to the Bouanga’s called-back goal. 

It was terrible,” Hollingshead said to Upper 90 founder and LAFC beat reporter Justin Ruderman. “I don’t know what to say besides getting fined for saying something bad but [the referee] knows it’s unacceptable. When you have a cup on the line, he needs to get a fine for that too.”

In the press conference, Head Coach Steve Cherundolo criticized the MLS’ roster rules, suggesting that they have hurt LAFC and other MLS teams in CONCACAF play.

“We have done an incredible job to stay in all competitions very late,” Cherundolo said. “But our guys are depleted, our stadium [operations] is tired, everyone in the organization is tired.”

Cherundolo called directly for changes to be made. 

“To create a competitive advantage for MLS, I think the owners, commissioner and the rest of the league office need to sit down and come up with solutions, because the status quo is not going to work. I can tell you that’s the opinion of many other coaches as well,” Cherundolo said. 

LAFC returns to action against Real Salt Lake at home Sunday at 5 p.m. 

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