“He told me to make a difference,” the 19-year-old remembered the next day. “And help the team.”
Those were apparently words Opoku took to heart because 13 minutes later he scored the deciding goal in the 2-1 win over Cruz Azul that sends LAFC into a semifinal Saturday with Mexico’s Club América, a game that looms as one of the biggest in the team’s brief history.
It already has been the most unusual Champions League in history, one marked by a nine-month pause for COVID-19 before the final eight teams gathered under quarantine conditions to finish the tournament in an empty stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Now LAFC has a chance to make it a memorable tournament too.
With wins over León, the eventual Liga MX champion, and Cruz Azul, LAFC is already the first U.S. team to beat two Mexican clubs in the same Champions League. Next up is América, arguably Mexico’s most popular and iconic club, one with a record 13 national titles and seven Champions League trophies.
The winner will face the survivor of the other semifinal Saturday between Mexico’s Tigres and Olimpia of Honduras in the title game Tuesday.
“We’ve set the bar high at LAFC,” Bradley said. “We’re a young club. To really make history and to make your fans proud, you have to get into this kind of event and you have to take them seriously.”
That LAFC is still chasing history can be credited in large part to Opoku’s goal, his first since leaving Ghana and joining the MLS team in October. His new teammates, whom Opoku refers to as “playmates,” marked the occasion by signing a game ball that soon will be shipped home to his mother and siblings.
Opoku, who goes by Mahala, needed nearly 10 months to make the trip from West Africa to Southern California and sign an MLS contract after Bradley spotted him playing at a soccer academy run by ex-Ghanaian international Godwin Attram and Piet Devisser, a Dutch-born manager and scout.
LAFC had players from 13 countries on its roster in 2019 and Bradley said the recruiting trip to Ghana last winter was part of an effort to cast a wider net.
“We had talked about trying to see if we can do a better job in Africa,” said Bradley of a continent with which he is familiar, having coached the U.S. in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa before spending two years as manager of the Egyptian national team.
“There’s great talent. But most of all there’s an incredible love for the game. You see kids, that when they’re around the game, their eyes light up and they smile.”
One of those kids was Opoku, then 18 but already a veteran of two youth national teams.
“One of the ones that special,” Bradley said, “was Mahala.”
Other teams saw that too so LAFC, which had forged a partnership with the Attram De Visser Soccer Academy, had to fight for the right to sign him. Then COVID hit, making it difficult to get Opoku to the U.S.
“It’s all about patience,” said Opoku, a speedy forward and one of 11 players on the LAFC roster who has yet to celebrate his 22nd birthday. “All you do is wait and train and wait for the right time.”
Opoku, who shares an apartment with 18-year-old Senegalese defender Mohamed Traore, officially signed in early October, then made his MLS debut in the final minute of a win over Seattle six days later. He made two more substitute appearances over the next week, picking up the assist on a game-tying goal in Portland that helped LAFC qualify for the playoffs.
“He’s really handled everything so well,” Bradley said. “He’s worked hard. He’s got a great way about him. He’s really well-liked by all the other players.”
Which brings us back to the pep talk the coach gave his player shortly before giving him the biggest assignment of his young career.
“He’s got ability to make special players,” Bradley said. “And so when you put him on in that situation, you want him to be aggressive, to go forward, to score goals.
“That was just a way of reminding him he’s earned it. Go on the field and make a difference.”
A difference that could wind up changing everything for LAFC. A month ago the team was making its third straight early exit from the MLS playoffs. With a win over Club América on Saturday, LAFC can qualify for its first tournament final.
“We have the chance now,” Bradley said. “That’s what matters.”