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Late goals help LAFC move on in CONCACAF Champions League

LAFC’s Latif Blessing (7) jumps into the arms of teammate Mark-Anthony Kaye as they celebrate their win over León during the CONCACAF Championship League match at Banc of California on Thursday.
LAFC’s Latif Blessing jumps into the arms of teammate Mark-Anthony Kaye as they celebrate their win over León during the CONCACAF Championship League match at Banc of California on Thursday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Thursday’s CONCACAF Champions League playoff game was a tale of two halves for LAFC.

Or better yet, a tale of two minutes.

Shut out in the first game of the two-leg playoff nine days ago and frustrated for most of Thursday’s rematch, LAFC was 13 minutes from elimination in the regional club championship when late goals by Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi gave it both new life and a 3-0 win over León.

The two scores, which came two minutes apart, also gave LAFC a 3-2 edge in aggregate goals over the two games, sending it on to next month’s tournament quarterfinals with Mexico’s Cruz Azul.

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It was also the most important win in the franchise’s short history. And the team treated it that way.

“I’ve never experienced something like this,” goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer said. “It’s amazing, unbelievable.”

If LAFC successfully navigates its MLS and Champions League schedule at the same time, its triumphs will be a reflection of the team’s ability to find value on the margins of its rosters.

Added a giddy Bob Bradley, the LAFC coach: “This is awesome tonight. At some point down the road we’re going to look back at the team and how we evolved. And this night will be special.”

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It had to be. Because after a 2-0 loss in last week’s first leg of the two-game playoff, LAFC took the field Thursday needing the push the tempo from the start. That almost paid off in the seventh minute when Vela got behind defender Ramiro Gonzalez up the right side, pushed the ball into the box with his right foot, then used his left foot to guide a shot by León keeper Rodolfo Cota. But it missed the open net by inches.

Four minutes later a sprawling Cota, who finished with seven saves, frustrated Mark-Anthony Kaye with two spectacular stops and in the 16th minute he made a leaping save on an Eduard Atuesta shot from distance.

LAFC kept up the relentless pressure, though, and Vela finally broke through just before the half-hour mark. The sequence started with Brian Rodriguez sending a ball from the left wing toward the end line for Diego Palacios, whose first attempt at a cross was blocked. On his second try Palacios forced a pass through a crowd of León defenders to the near post for Vela, whose right-footed deflection slipped through Cota’s gloved hand and across the goal line.

LAFC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye tries to score on Leon’s goalie Rodoolfo Cota in the first half during the CONCACAF Champions League match at Banc of California on Thursday.
LAFC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye tries to score on Leon’s goalie Rodoolfo Cota in the first half during the CONCACAF Champions League match at Banc of California on Thursday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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LAFC outshot León 12-3 in the first half, putting five of those tries on target. But it had just the one goal to show for all that work when Rossi’s open try missed well wide of the far post at the halftime whistle.

Fatigue became a factor in a second half that was far more even, with León dominating in terms of possession. That shouldn’t have been a surprise: León is seven weeks into the Liga MX season while LAFC doesn’t play its first MLS game until Sunday.

And though Vela, who finished with a game-high seven shots, was gassed, LAFC refused to take its foot off the pedal.

“We kept believing it’s still possible until the referee blows the last whistle,” Vermeer said.

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That faith was rewarded when Vela, playing against a Mexican club for the just second time in his career, fought through the tired legs in the 77th minute for a goal and a 2-0 lead in the game and a 2-2 tie in the aggregate, slicing between two defenders to redirect in a perfect cross from Tristan Blackmon.

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Highlights from LAFC’s victory over León in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

Two minutes later Rossi, given way too much space up the left side, handed LAFC its first aggregate lead of the year with his bending left-footed shot from just inside the penalty area kissing the crossbar, then deflecting in off the far post. With León failing to put a shot on target all night, that goal quickly became the most important in LAFC history.

“Every guy put everything they had into it,” Bradley said. “That’s what makes a special night.

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“If you make it happen, it’s a night that everybody remembers.”


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