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LAFC’s first big Champions League goal of 2023: Don’t get Concacaf’d

A timely reminder ahead of the first away day.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Los Angeles FC Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LAFC have only played one game in their history to date outside of the United States and Canada. It did not go well.

February 18, 2020, LAFC went to Mexico to take on Club León, then the defending Liga MX champ, and lost 2-0 in their debut Concacaf Champions League match. It was the first black-and-gold game of the season, so they were rusty, and Club León were not, and it was kind of a routine whuppin’ that humbled LAFC enough, but kept them in the tie with hopes of overturning it.

From there, LAFC scarcely looked back, of course. They did indeed flip the tie in Los Angeles, winning the second leg 3-0 and qualifying for the quarterfinal round. After COVID shut the world down for several months, Concacaf made the rest of the CCL tournament a bubble-esque experience at the end of the year in Orlando, Florida. LAFC no longer had to travel at all, they had already had a residency in Orlando that year in the MLS is Back Tournament, and the compressed timeframe of the tournament with no other competitions happening meant they could focus fully on CCL. They did, and nearly won the whole thing, only losing in the second half to Tigres in the final.

This year, for the first time, LAFC are back in CCL, and their quest for the region’s biggest title begins Thursday with a debut away trip to Costa Rica to take on Alajuelense.

On paper, it’s a decent match-up for LAFC, who don’t have to go through a Liga MX buzzsaw out of the gate like last time, and don’t have to face a familiar face from MLS. However, I wouldn’t get the victory cigars out prematurely.

One thing LAFC have yet to be immersed in is the full weirdness of Concacaf play. Yes, they did take part in a CCL fistfight last time when they played Club América, but that was a mere taste.

Concacaf play can be dimly-lit stadiums, fields with grass too long or not watered or bizarrely bumpy. Opposing fans may find your hotel and blast music or treat you to an impromptu concert right under your window the night before the game. The facilities may be a far cry from the usual standard.

In the game itself, the match official may seem at times to be watching a different game than the one LAFC is playing in at that very moment. A crunching tackle may not even merit a whistle. But also! Beware the acting. Remember Guillermo Ochoa milking a “blow” from Eduard Atuesta (when the players may not have touched at all) and getting Atuesta sent off in 2020? Yeah, that’s a strong possibility too.

I’m not someone who believes in moral superiority of one soccer culture over another, and even though antics like those mentioned above, time-wasting and injury-faking are all annoying — especially when they are being done by the opponent — I understand what they are in service to. In Concacaf, resources for all but those at the very top are extremely limited. If you want to get that win, if you want to compete, you play every game like winning is the only thing in this life. There is no tomorrow, if you want to move on, if you want to get a move to a bigger league, this is it.

The result is that MLS teams — and from time to time, Liga MX teams — get knocked off their perch by being “Concacaf’d.” It’s the combination of all the shithousery I’ve mentioned above, bizarre officiating that at times defies belief and teams from Central America and the Caribbean looking for any antic or advantage that can help them just a little bit. From a neutral perspective, it’s often entertaining. Inside, it can be maddening, and some MLS teams wilt in these moments.

The other side of being Concacaf’d? Getting your butts kicked by an opponent everyone perceives to be weaker. Austin FC know this phenomenon a little too well, after losing 3-0 in the Dominican Republic this week in their first-ever CCL game to a Haitian minnow, Violette AC.

Let that be a lesson to LAFC. Alajuelense are relative giants compared to Violette, they’ll be playing in their home stadium, and they are in great form. If they play like gentleman but beat LAFC 3-0, it’s going to be a long plane ride home to Los Angeles, because LAFC will have been Concacaf’d. And while LAFC have the highs of 2020’s CCL campaign to draw upon, some of the knowhow to be picked up from traveling around the region were lost in the edition they played in because of the pandemic.

So the goal is simple for LAFC: Don’t get Concacaf’d in Alajuela on Thursday. Hopefully the black-and-gold keep their wits about them, ready to face the ups and downs of playing in the CCL, and leave the match with a result they can work with for the second leg, no matter the outcome on the night. If they do that, perhaps they can make another run in the competition in 2023.

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