LAFC vs Tigres, Vela vs Gignac: CONCACAF Champions League final a legacy-defining moment

Vela Gignac LAFC Tigres
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Two big clubs and two big attacking stars will go head-to-head on Tuesday in a match that is about much more than just a trophy

Unless your name is Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, creating history, true history, is hard to do in this sport.

It is not often you get the chance to accomplish something that has never been done, to win something that has never been won by someone else that was once in your shoes.

But, on Tuesday night, Carlos Vela and Los Angeles FC have their own chance at doing something for the very first time. In the most grueling of years and with the most difficult path imaginable, LAFC have a chance to do the unthinkable to close out 2020.

Having taken down Club America in a semifinal clash that proved an instant classic, for both good and bad reasons, LAFC head into Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League final with the chance to become the first MLS team to win this particular trophy.

Several have come close, with Real Salt Lake, the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC all reaching the final in the last decade. But, so far, the CCL has been Mexico's competition, one that MLS teams have been unable to conquer.

LAFC, a team that has been among the best in MLS in recent years, has that chance, and their path to that final has been anything but easy having beaten three straight Liga MX teams to get here: Club Leon in the last 16, then Azul in the quarterfinals and, most recently, Club America in the semifinal round.

“I think we've learned from some of the moments that slipped away from us,” said LAFC boss Bob Bradley, “and [against America] you could see the concentration on so many guys – guys in the back moving out, organizing, winning balls and still finding moments to play. So, I'm really proud of everybody.

“You've got to develop that mentality, you've got to sometimes suffer a little bit and we have. So to be in a final is really special.”

Awaiting them in the final is CONCACAF's final boss: Tigres.

Led by Andre Pierre-Gignac, Tigres have been among the region's best for the past handful of years. They earned the title of Campeon de Campeones in 2016, 2017 and 2018, having established themselves as a powerhouse domestically.

However, like all final bosses, Tigres' have seen their weaknesses exposed in that last climactic battle. The Mexican giants have been to three CCL finals since 2016, but have been unable to claim the trophy while watching several of their domestic rivals lift it in recent years.

“People can look at a glass any way they want. Some see it half-full; others see it half-empty," said Tigres boss Tuca Ferretti. "For me, I see it as being glass half-full, but people might criticize and say it is half-empty because we have lost the three finals that we have played prior to this.

"And many people say that we are not interested in this CONCACAF tournament. If we weren’t interested, we wouldn’t have reached so many finals."

LAFC and Tigres have had wildly different paths to this final, which served as the culmination of a tournament that began in March but was derailed by the coronavirus.

LAFC, having faced three consecutive battles with Mexican opponents, has been forced to grind after going behind in every tie so far.

Tigres, meanwhile, have dominated, crushing the likes of in NYCFC and Olimpia after originally stumbling out of the gates with a last-gasp comeback win against underdogs Alianza.

But, while they have had different paths, the way in which they have navigated them has been the same. Both teams have been led heavily by their stars, as Vela and Gignac have only furthered their respective claims to be the best player in CONCACAF.

The 2020 campaign for Vela was one that never truly got going, having battled injury issues that saw him limited to just seven games.

But in the Champions League Vela has shined, scoring five goals, including two in the victory against Club America, a team he has been linked to in recent months.

“I’ve said it a few times, Carlos, it's special for him to play these teams,” Bradley said after LAFC's win. “And it also comes in a year where obviously with different important family responsibilities and then an MCL injury, he missed a lot.

“So you can tell that at the end of this year, how much it means to him and when that comes across all the other players, that's obviously a special kind of leadership. And then he backs it up on the field."

The only player to score as many goals in the competition so far? Gignac, who enters the final dealing with a thigh injury.

The France international, a five-time Best XI selection, has proven to be one of Liga MX's best-ever goalscorers since making the move from Marseille in 2015.

If Gignac is good to go, Tuesday's final will provide a stage for two of CONCACAF's most dominant players to further their own legacies with clubs they helped ignite.

Gignac Tigres 2020

"I've never played with Gignac so I can't tell you how good of a player is other than watching, just like you and I have, from our couches," said LAFC midfielder Marc-Anthony Kaye. "I can only talk about Carlos and Carlos is a great playe.

"You get to see what he's done for us as a club, as a league for the MLS. I don't think there's really even a way of comparing them. They're both good quality players and I know they're both going to give their all in the final, but I'm glad that I have Carlos on my side."

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Tuesday's final will cap off the strangest of years, even by CONCACAF standards. This has been a tournament delayed by months and months, arguably to MLS' benefit given the normal timing of this competition. But in the end lies a marquee matchup.

It is one that features big stars in Gignac and Vela, and big teams in Tigres and LAFC.

But, most importantly, it features two clubs playing for more than just a trophy as both look to truly establish themselves among North America's true powerhouses.

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