LAFC faces a huge challenge in CONCACAF Champions League match against León

León's David Meneses, left, struggles for the ball with LAFC's Diego Rossi during the round of 16 match of the CONCACAF Champions League 2020 at Leon Stadium on Feb. 18 in León, Mexico.
(Leopoldo Smith / Getty Images)

The math is simple if not favorable for LAFC heading into its the CONCACAF Champions League match with León on Thursday.

Score at least three goals and don’t allow any and LAFC is on to the tournament quarterfinals next month against Cruz Azul. Anything less and … well, it gets complicated.

After a 2-0 loss in León last week in the first leg of the Round-of-16 playoff, LAFC has a big hole to climb out of in the second game, this one at Banc of California Stadium. LAFC needs two goals just to tie the aggregate score. Win 2-0 and the playoff goes directly to penalty kicks. Win 3-0 and LAFC moves on. Win 3-1 and León advances on the away-goal tiebreaker.

“This is a huge opportunity for us as a club,” defender Tristan Blackmon said. “It’s our biggest challenge so far.”

LAFC broke the MLS record for points and tied the record for goals last season, finishing with the best regular-season in history. But it has never won a knockout tournament, losing in the final eight of the last two U.S. Open Cups and twice in the Western Conference bracket of the MLS playoffs.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - OCTOBER 24: The Los Angeles FC celebrate the first goal of the game, scored by Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) during a match between the Los Angeles FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy at Banc of California Stadium, on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)


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Feb. 26, 2020

The team hasn’t fared any better in its first visit to the regional club championship, with defensive mistakes leading to goals by León’s Jean Meneses and Angel Mena. LAFC had plenty of reasons for the poor performance: it was the team’s first competitive match of 2020 while León was six games into its Liga MX season, the game was played at altitude and LAFC was missing two key starters in midfielder Eduard Atuesta and defender Jordan Harvey.

“There’s so many reasons we can point to as to why we didn’t have our best night,” general manager John Thorrington said. “We knew that was the reality going in. It will never be used as an excuse for us.

“We accept the challenge. It’s a big ask now.”

Atuesta missed the game in Mexico with a minor injury, and Harvey was about to board LAFC’s charter flight to Mexico when his wife went into labor with the couple’s second child. Both players are expected to be available Thursday, giving LAFC coach Bob Bradley the deepest roster he’s had this winter to face one of the biggest challenges his team has faced in its three seasons.

“It’s all about the mentality and the belief,” Bradley said. “The opportunity for a team, at home, to get the first goal, to put the other team under pressure, really be committed with the possibility of making a special night, you have to embrace those moments.

“The best teams, the best players are up for it. And I think we will be.”