Entering Tuesday's match against Club Leon, it had been nearly four months since we'd seen Los Angeles FC take the field for an official match. It had been nearly four months since we'd seen a team widely heralded as one of the best MLS had been to offer. It had been nearly four months since that team came up short and ended their pursuit of an MLS Cup in the worst possible way.
And, when LAFC resurfaced in Mexico on Tuesday for their first ever Concacaf Champions League match, they very much looked like a team that hadn't played in nearly four months.
On Tuesday, a team known for their creativity, their confidence and, ultimately, their quality didn't display too much of any of those three chrachteristics.The end result was a 2-0 win for Club Leon, giving the Liga MX side the advantage heading towards the second leg while leaving the MLS side asking some all-too-familiar questions.
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Tuesday's match was LAFC's first ever continental match, but the themes that have defined MLS clubs' experience in this tournament were all there. There was the more-fit Mexican team, as Leon entered the match third in Liga MX. There was the home atmosphere, as Estadio Leon rocked and roared from the start. And there was the clumsiness from the MLS side, one that was playing its first real game of the year in the most difficult circumstances this region has to offer.
From the start, the hosts looked like the team in control. There was a sense that Leon never truly felt in danger, even if there were moments that appeared like they were in trouble. It was like an older sibling toying with someone younger, giving them enough of a chance to keep coming back but never enough to worry them.
While Leon had the depth and quality to diversify their attacks, LAFC's strategy was clear: give the ball to Carlos Vela or Diego Rossi and pray. It was a strategy that worked well enough last season, with Vela shattering goal and assist records while Rossi broke through as one of the league's top stars.
Vela, in particular, played with a purpose, and for good reason. In his return to Mexico, Vela was the subject of taunts and cheers whenever he was on the ball. He looked dangerous, but lacked the sharpness that defined his record-breaking season last year. And, as a result, LAFC floundered. As Vela goes, so goes LAFC.
Leon, meanwhile, found plenty of joy attacking an LAFC defense that looked like a unit lacking chemistry. After trading defensive centerpiece Walker Zimmerman just last week, this was always going to be a massive test. They didn't completely fail, but they certainly didn't pass either.
The first goal came in the 21st minute, when Jean Meneses was left all alone on the left side. LAFC defender Tristan Blackmon, a player earmarked as one that will need to step up for LAFC this season, was late to get over and skipped past almost immediately once he did. Meneses' near-post shot left new goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer with no chance, and it was 1-0 Leon.
But the second goal was the real backbreaker. Heading back home with a 1-0 loss would be easy to stomach. LAFC can score at home and, even without the away goal, they would have backed themselves to turn things around. But 2-0, that's a totally different task.
What will hurt the most is that it was entirely preventable. It was a bad turnover from substitute Mohamed El-Munir, some shaky defending from Dejan Jakovic and, most importantly, a simple finish from Angel Mena. It's was the late goal of nightmares, one that could end LAFC's hopes of being the first MLS side to lift this trophy before they even got going.
It was the latest example of Liga MX dominance in a competition that is known for just that. LAFC isn't the first team to struggle in Mexico and last year's Supporters' Shield winners aren't the only team to ever fail to find a rhythm in this tournament. Tuesday's match is just the latest in a long list of letdowns and missed opportunities, with LAFC becoming the CCL's latest MLS victim on Mexican soil.
LAFC won't have to wait another four months to right Tuesday's wrongs. That wait will only last nine days. But, barring a stunning result back in the U.S., LAFC will have plenty of what-ifs and what-happeneds to mull over in the weeks and months to come.