Five years of frustration came to an end for Mexico’s Tigres on Tuesday in an empty stadium in Orlando, Fla., while for LAFC, a 2-1 loss in the CONCACAF Champions League final wasn’t so much an ending as it was an auspicious debut in the region’s most prestigious club soccer competition.
Tigres, arguably Mexico’s best team over the last decade, had been to the championship game three times in the previous four years before finally getting their hands on the trophy. And fittingly, it was two of the most accomplished players in the team’s long history that made it happen.
Hugo Ayala, who has played the most games in a Tigres shirt, erased an LAFC lead in the 72nd minute while André-Pierre Gignac, the team’s all-time leading scorer, got the game-winner 12 minutes later.
Diego Rossi had LAFC’s score, in the 61st minute.
“Finally,” Gignac, the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals, said in Spanish from behind a facemask. “We deserved it. Today it’s Tigres’ turn.”
It’s also Tigres’ turn to play in the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar in February, a seven-team field topped by European champion Bayern Munich. LAFC, meanwhile, goes home but not before making some history of its own.
With wins over León, Cruz Azul and Club América, LAFC is the first MLS team to eliminate three Liga MX teams in the same tournament. And for most of Tuesday night it seemed poised to become the first MLS team to win a Champions League.
“We’re very disappointed. I thought for 70 minutes we made the game very hard for them,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “We played some really good football in some of these games. I thought our way of going after the game tonight was real good. The mentality to play the final and push the game, that’s important.
“So we end in really disappointing way.”
LAFC pressured Tigres all over the field in a choppy first half that saw 26 fouls but just one shot on goal. Carlos Vela, who had five goals in his three previous Champions League games, was the target of much of the bumping and bruising, drawing five fouls, most coming from left back Jesus Dueñas.
Yet even as the fouls piled up, Guatemalan referee Mario Escobar kept his cards in his pocket. So Bradley played his trump card at halftime, clearing the middle of the field for Vela by sending center forward Danny Musovski to the bench in favor of teenage winger Kwadwo Opoku.
Vela finished without a shot on goal, but the speedy Opoku made his presence felt immediately, opening up a game that had been bogged down in the midfield. The result was Rossi’s score on LAFC’s first shot on target of the night in the 61st minute.
The sequence started with Vela getting the ball to Mark-Anthony Kaye in space at the top of the box. As Vela darted to the net from the left side, Kaye turned and floated a perfect pass toward the right post for Rossi, who volleyed the ball in off a bounce.
No MLS team has led a Champions League game after the hour mark, but LAFC wouldn’t get another shot on goal and 11 minutes later the lead was gone too. Kaye played a part in that as well, stumbling after Ayala’s header and failing to clear the ball off the line near the far post. Nicolás López got the assist with a long, bending left-footed corner kick.
That set things up for Gignac. With LAFC’s defenders wilting after pressing Tigres for more than 80 minutes, Luis Rodríguez got loose for a long run up the right wing. When he got to the top of the box, he cut to his left and ran parallel to the goal before laying the ball off for Gignac in the center. The Frenchman had an easy finish from there.
LAFC, meanwhile, had to be content with making a good first impression.
“Personally, I like a lot how Bradley manages and how his team plays,” Tigres manager Tuca Ferretti said. “We beat a great opponent.”