And Vela made it pay for that, scoring twice in the opening seconds of the second half to lead a short-handed LAFC to a 3-1 win over Mexico’s most decorated club, the biggest victory in the team’s short history
LAFC will play Tigres of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, in Tuesday’s tournament final. Tigres got two penalty-kick goals from Andre-Pierre Gignac, one in each half, to beat Olimpia of Honduras 3-0 and advance the championship game for the fourth time in five years.
“To be in a final,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said, “is really special.”
It will be the first time LAFC plays a tournament final, and Bradley’s team earned the invitation, surviving what should have been an attractive match between two of the most stylish teams in MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX that instead devolved into an ugly, physical game in which two players left with red cards and Club América manager Miguel Herrera was ejected before the start of the second half.
Rising above it all was Vela, who was bumped, bruised and battered all night but fought back to erase a 1-0 deficit in the first 90 seconds of the second half, rescuing a team that played half the game with just 10 men.
“It’s special for him to play these games,” Bradley said of Vela, who has played in two World Cups for Mexico. “You can tell how much it means to him. That’s obviously a special kind of leadership. And then he backs it up on the field.
“He’s an amazing player. There’s so many things that Carlos brings to our team. You can tell he’s really committed right now.”
LAFC stumbled through a disappointing and injury-riddled MLS season but entered the resumption of the Champions League last week healthier than it has been since the tournament was suspended nine months ago. And it showed flashes of that early season form in its quarterfinal when Vela carried the team past Cruz Azul.
With a round-of-16 win over Leon last spring, LAFC became the first U.S. team to beat two Mexican clubs in the same tournament. It needed a win over América to become the first MLS team to beat three Mexican clubs, and América didn’t want to be part of that history, smothering Vela throughout the first half and holding him without a shot on goal until the 38th minute, when a left-footed try from outside the box died in the arms of América keeper Guillermo Ochoa.
In first-half stoppage time, Ochoa was involved in the play that arguably changed the game. With LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta writhing on the turf inside América’s penalty area after being kicked in the midsection by Richard Sánchez, Ochoa bent over the LAFC midfielder and said something before softly patting Atuesta on the head.
Atuesta responded angrily, striking Ochoa, who embellished the incident by dropping to the ground and grabbing his face, earning Atuesta his red card. Moments later players and coaches from both sides exchanged pushes, shoves and unpleasant words, leading to the ejection of Herrera and Ante Razov, a member of the LAFC coaching staff, as the teams headed to their locker rooms.
“I’ve gotten a lot of text messages from people who have seen replays, from people who saw exactly who initiated the problem,” Bradley said. “I’ve been told by many people that Eduard didn’t do anything.”
When the teams returned, an angry Vela made his own statement with his first goal coming after he collected a poor clearance and caromed a shot in off América defender Sebastián Cáceres. On the second a long, bouncing pass from Eddie Segura sent Vela into the box with only Ochoa to beat — which he did, with a left-footed shot inside the far post.
“At halftime, we thought that we would still win,” Bradley said. “I didn’t expect that a couple of minutes into the second half, Carlos would’ve already scored twice. A team effort where commitment and the intensity was just awesome.
“We’ve constantly tried to find a way that we can develop that that kind of mentality to win tough games, to get to finals. I think we’ve learned from some of the moments that slipped away from us and tonight you could see the concentration on so many guys.”
But especially from Vela, whose two scores erased a 1-0 deficit built on Cáceres’ header off a Jorge Sánchez corner kick in the 11th minute. Any chance América had at a comeback fizzled in the 79th minute when defender Luis Reyes was ejected.
Latif Blessing then closed the scoring deep in second-half stoppage time, banging in the rebound of an Ochoa save on Diego Rossi at the end of a counterattack.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Bradley said.
His team has one more chance to prove him right.