LOS ANGELES — When teams were being drawn back in early December, one thing was evident for LAFC: the CONCACAF Champions League road was going to be tough.
Not only did the Black and Gold end up drawing the only MLS-Liga MX matchup of the round of 16, they landed in a spot that potentially pitted them against all Mexican opposition throughout the tournament.
Welcome to your first real taste of international competition.
What also didn’t help is the imbalance of schedules between the two leagues. The same night a half-strength LAFC was playing their first preseason game on January 25, León was winning for the second time in three Clausura season matches, piling up eight goals over that span.
A good chunk of Bob Bradley’s men were down in South America representing their countries in CONMEBOL Olympic qualifiers. Walker Zimmerman was in the United States camp and then shockingly traded to Nashville. Adama Diomande fractured a bone in his foot during a preseason match. His supposed replacement Bradley Wright-Phillips was signed but needed a sports hernia surgery.
Such obstacles had LAFC using a mixture of academy teenagers and returning players in preparation for their Champions League debut, while León was surging to the top of Liga MX.
Was the 2-0 loss during the first leg in Mexico really that much of a surprise?
“Five weeks into preseason, at altitude, with a new team,” Bradley said. “I don’t think anybody had a good game last week. We looked hard at that and understood we had nine days to get ready for the second game.”
That extended time paid dividends in Thursday’s 3-0 shutout of León, who failed to even get a shot on target en route to elimination. All the criticism LAFC received after the Zimmerman trade was heard and the defense responded accordingly. Center backs Eddie Segura and Dejan Jakovic kept the first leg from getting out of hand while minimizing danger in the second. Wingbacks Diego Palacios and Tristan Blackmon each registered an assist to Carlos Vela.
Vela, along with his teammates, didn’t at all seem like they had only played one real game. Whatever rust and lack of intensity they showed across the border was washed away from the minute the whistle blew. Pushing the tempo, making the opposition uncomfortable and creating chances galore. Within 27 minutes he found the back of the net. It was soon after that León finally mustered their first shot of the game.
There wouldn’t be many more. LAFC finished with 22 shots (10 on target) compared to León’s seven overall.
“I think a lot of teams counted us out and now they’re looking at this game like ‘Wow, LAFC is still LAFC and maybe even better’, so this was a big statement game for us,” said midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye. “And the way we did it, that just makes us really proud.”
Truthfully, that attitude they embodied was the biggest takeaway from the comeback. In decisive moments where LAFC has lost games, whether in the MLS Cup Playoffs, U.S. Open Cup or rivalry matches with the Galaxy, there has typically been an absence of toughness and ability to adjust.
All of those doubts arose after seeing the performance down in León. But moving on to the Champions League quarterfinals in this fashion might be the spark LAFC needs to win a trophy this season.
“They weren’t ready,” a smug Bradley interjected when asked about León’s gameplan.
The Black and Gold not only showed they were ready, but also capable of more. They slayed a Liga MX juggernaut in a marquee series that would’ve been right at home as the tournament’s final. It’s no secret LAFC is equipped to chase MLS Cup.
How about an international trophy on your very first try?
MLS has yet to win the CONCACAF Champions League in its current format. However, LAFC’s resurgence — not to mention Atlanta United, NYCFC and the Montreal Impact joining them in the quarterfinals — suggests this could be the year.
LAFC 3252 honors Kobe, Gianna and others lost in tragedy
Carlos Vela’s captain armband had the names of all the victims along with a big “KB” on it. As the teams walked onto the field before the game, the LAFC supporters’ section unveiled an incredible tifo that read “Kobe & Gigi forever” with the fans creating the Nos. 8 and 24 behind it.
“Looking up at the beginning and seeing the tifo for Kobe and Gianna was incredible,” Bradley said. “In addition to all the work and things that had been said over the last nine days, one thing to top it off, to understand what a night like tonight needed to be in terms of competing and winning: the Mamba Mentality.”
More from Yahoo Sports: