For LAFC coach Bob Bradley, the appeal of the CONCACAF Champions League isn’t so much the chance to win a major trophy. It’s more about the chance to learn, grow and get better.
In that case, class will be back in session Thursday when Bradley’s team plays host to Cruz Azul, the leader of Mexico’s Liga MX, in the first game of a two-leg quarterfinal playoff.
“From the beginning, we’ve talked about wanting to do well and testing ourselves against good teams,” Bradley said. “Cruz Azul has an amazing history, and I’m looking forward to it.”
The playoff will be decided by aggregate goals over the two games, something that worked in LAFC’s favor in the round of 16. LAFC lost a sloppy 2-0 decision to León in Mexico, and then rallied for a 3-0 win at home to advance.
“The second-leg against León was a special night,” said Bradley, whose team advanced behind goals from Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi two minutes apart late in the second half. “This time we start at home.”
That’s an advantage LAFC has to exploit. In three seasons, the team has lost just five of 45 games at Banc of California in all competition but is 16-13-8 on the road. The second leg of the two-game playoff will be played March 18 in the mile-high air of Mexico City, where Cruz Azul is unbeaten this season.
The turnaround for Thursday’s game will be a quick one for LAFC, which rallied for a 3-3 MLS draw with Philadelphia on Sunday.
“It’s not the first time we’re going to play two games in four or five days so it’ll be OK,” midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “But obviously it’s more important now to make sure the recovery is good and everyone’s doing the right things to make sure their bodies are set.”
Kaye, echoing his coach, said the Philadelphia game was a good test for LAFC heading into the Cruz Azul match since it erased one-goal deficits three times to earn the tie.
“Whenever you can come back, you can gain some sort of confidence from it,” Kaye said. “It’s not always just a positive thing because it means you went down a couple of times and you’d rather not. Especially with Champions League coming up, knowing that the team is confident even when we let in a goal, that we can still go and get something out of the game, is very important.”
The game was a struggle for new goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, who faced five shots and allowed three goals. In four competitive games with LAFC, the inconsistent Vermeer has allowed five goals and posted two shutouts.
“Sometimes when players come in it takes a little bit to adjust,” defender Dejan Jakovic said of Vermeer, who played more than 200 games for three teams in the Dutch Eredivisie before joining LAFC this winter. “I think he’s done well. Just keep pushing forward.”