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LAFC aim to be at best against Cruz Azul, but coronavirus lurking

Uncertainty reigns in uncertain time.

LAFC v Philadelphia Union - MLS Soccer Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

In the most unexpected year, Los Angeles Football Club are trying to prepare as normally as possible for an abnormal situation.

Most of the time, the Concacaf Champions League would be wrapped up in the spring, with MLS teams perpetually complaining that the competition puts them at a disadvantage because unlike their Liga MX counterparts, MLS sides are only getting started with their domestic season when CCL is played.

That idea is turned on its head this year, however, as LAFC, still in the CCL quarterfinal round, will face Cruz Azul Wednesday as the tournament resumes following a nine-month break.

LAFC aren’t the only MLS team left in the competition, with the Montreal Impact, New York City FC and Atlanta United also still alive, and in a sense, it feels like a great opportunity for an MLS team to finally break the duck and win the tournament under the current format.

Still, things aren’t normal as teams prepare for their showdowns.

LAFC head coach Bob Bradley revealed during a conference call with reporters Thursday — after taking a moment to thank health care workers and essential workers during the pandemic — that there are still “COVID after-effects” on the squad, namely Brian Rodriguez not expected back into the United States until Thursday night, the Uruguayan attacker previously testing positive alongside three other LAFC players last month.

Will LAFC go through a full bubble environment again in Orlando this year, where the CCL games will be held? No, this time it’s a routine road trip, albeit with a slew of coronavirus tests to be conducted, as is protocol these days.

“I think we’re scheduled to leave on Monday,” Bradley said. “I think when you arrive, you get tested and then there’s some period of time in your [hotel] rooms until they get those test results back. Our plan would be to train in Orlando Tuesday night. And then the game is Wednesday night. So the amount of time that we’re there before the game isn’t long, enough to make sure that everybody gets tested and that we get a little bit of training and we’re ready to go.”

Of course, coronavirus could play a key role in this trip. LAFC missed up to four starters for their playoff game against the Seattle Sounders just over two weeks ago — in addition to Rodriguez, Diego Rossi, Diego Palacios and Jose Cifuentes all tested positive and were unavailable — and there’s no question their absence hurt LAFC in that loss. The MLS Cup final is scheduled for Saturday and two key players for the Columbus Crew tested positive Thursday and will therefore miss the big game.

Prior to the last batch of LAFC positives, three other LAFC players, not named publicly, tested positive for coronavirus in the final weeks of the regular season. And with the pandemic at its worst right now in the United States, with California in another stay-at-home order and gatherings banned, there’s no guarantee that more positives, for LAFC or Cruz Azul, won’t arise before the big game.

While LAFC have some experience playing far away from home, in Orlando, for competitive games, Bradley downplayed the black-and-gold’s experience in Florida at the MLS is Back Tournament this summer, saying both teams in this CCL clash will be eager for victory to stay alive in the tournament.

“We have experience going to Orlando, maybe we can use that in a good way, but we know that both teams will be really motivated when the game starts,” he said. “The way you really get the edge is with being first to plays, being sharper with passes and advantages, reactions. This is the way that big games are won, or obviously on the other side this is, as I just mentioned the way big games sometimes are lost.

“So, we don’t think that because we’ve been in a bubble that that automatically means that everything goes our way. You have to earn this when you play in the biggest games against big teams,” he said.

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