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LAFC reaches CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals despite loss to LD Alajuelense

LOS ANGELES — Entering with a three-goal cushion following a dominant win in Costa Rica last week, the Los Angeles Football Club’s spot in the quarterfinal round of the CONCACAF Champions League seemed all but assured as the team returned to BMO Stadium to face LD Alajuelense.

But in front of an announced crowd of 19,672 it was not that simple.

An assortment of missed chances from the defending MLS Cup champions combined with must-have goals and saves by the Caribbean visitors turned a presumed walkover into an awkward nailbiter.

LAFC captain Carlos Vela eventually sealed Alajuelense’s fate in the 83rd minute, scoring with poise after the ball rolled to him in the box off of a Costa Rican defender.

Despite taking a 2-1 loss at home, Vela’s goal put the Black & Gold ahead for good on aggregate, 4-2, to nail down their quarterfinal spot.

Needing to win by three or more goals to advance beyond the two-leg home-and-home Round of 16 matchup, Alajuelense found hope early. The Costa Rican champions capitalized in the eighth minute when a handball in the box was called on Giorgio Chiellini after Mexican referee Adonai Escobado’s video review.

Alajuelense captain Giancarlo Gonzalez hammered the ball past goalkeeper John McCarthy into the upper right corner for a lead.

The visitors added a second goal after halftime, finishing a counter off an LAFC set piece in the opposing side of the field when midfielder Aaron Suarez connected on a rebounded save from McCarthy.

“We said to each other keep going, keep going, we need to score” after falling behind 2-0, said forward Stipe Biuk, who started and played 90 minutes for the second match in four days. “We had a lot of shots, so at the end, Vela scored. It was good and relaxing then.”

Twenty minutes after Suarez closed the deficit to one, he had a chance to make it 3-0, but he hit the ball wide from 6 yards away.

“I’m very proud of my team, of my players for their effort,” Alajuelense head coach Andrés Carevic said. “It’s a shame it wasn’t enough for us.”

Several missed opportunities to ice the contest also came and went for LAFC.

Defender Aaron Long clanged a header off the crossbar a quarter-hour into the match. Chiellini missed an open shot at close range. Biuk could not make much of his chances. And until he provided late breathing room, neither did Vela.

When LAFC managed to put the ball on frame, Alajuelense goalkeeper Leonel Moreira stood strong with seven saves.

McCarthy stopped five shots, including a diving save in stoppage time.

Prior to ousting the Costa Rican champions, LAFC’s CONCACAF Champions League experience included a quartet of Mexican opponents in 2020 during its pandemic-delayed march to the tournament final. The Black & Gold eventually succumbed to Tigres UANL with the trophy and a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup on the line.

Three years later, LAFC has earned the right to play a two-leg quarterfinal against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who dominated Honduran club Real España in the Round of 16.

The teams will meet twice between April 4-13, giving LAFC a chance to face a familiar league opponent.

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“The element of surprise is no longer there for us,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said. “Both teams know each other very well.”

Despite qualifying for the playoffs just once since LAFC joined the league in 2018, Vancouver has proven to be a tricky test for LAFC, especially in Canada.

Head-to-head, the Western Conference sides are 4-4-3. LAFC is unbeaten against Vancouver at BMO Stadium (3-0-3), including six-goal outbursts in 2019 and 2020, but the team is a paltry 1-4 on the road.

Last season, both teams won on their respective home fields. In 2021, when LAFC failed to qualify for the postseason and Vancouver made the playoffs, the Whitecaps secured a win and two draws against the MLS leader in wins, points and goals scored since it entered the league five years ago.

“It’s a matchup where I know what’s expected of us and it’s a matchup where we think we can advance,” Cherundolo said, “but I’m sure (Vancouver head coach Vanni Sartini) is saying the same thing.”

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