Carlos Vela's Mexico return ends in defeat as Leon stop LAFC in CONCACAF Champions League

LEON, Mexico -- LAFC's 2-0 first-leg loss to Club Leon on Tuesday in the round of 16 wasn't your ordinary CONCACAF Champions League game.

For a start, it's not every day that you find Leon schoolboys bunking off to try get a photo with star LAFC and Mexico forward Carlos Vela, who was playing a club game in his homeland for the first time since he left for Arsenal in 2005. Then there was the security at LAFC's hotel, which was reportedly heavier on game day than when Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stayed in the same building two days earlier.

On the morning of the game, there was a line outside Club Leon's club's ticket office at 7 a.m. even though the club had announced on Monday that tickets had sold out. Add into the mix roughly 800 LAFC fans who traveled down and made their presence felt, and it was an atmosphere to rival a Copa Libertadores knockout game with "CCL Fever" -- a hashtag used sometimes with a hint of sarcasm -- very much applicable to game day in the central Mexican city.

The prospect of Vela, a masterful player who has an uneasy relationship with El Tri fans, coming to Mexico had ignited excitement and intrigue in a game already being played between each league's best regular season teams of 2019. There were even knock-off LAFC shirts and caps on sale outside the stadium.

But despite the excitement, this was arguably LAFC's most difficult game yet in its short two-year history and it came thanks to some misfortune in the draw: Leon was by far the toughest opponent in the second pot. Hopes were high among LAFC supporters that their team could conjure up the type of form that broke MLS regular season records in 2019, but not having played a competitive game for 112 days weighed heavy as the match wore on -- to his credit, Bob Bradley didn't want to use it as an excuse before or after the game. The sale of centre-back Walker Zimmerman the week before the game, as well as the fact there were two debutants -- Francisco Ginella and Kenneth Vermeer -- in the starting XI didn't help LAFC's chances of success in the club's opening game of 2020.

Jean Meneses opened the scoring in the first half, cutting in from the left wing and firing a low shot past LAFC keeper Vermeer. Despite LAFC's pursuit of an equalizer, Angel Mena controlled a Luis Montes reverse pass and finished from inside the area to hand Leon a 2-0 lead going into next Thursday's second leg. The two-goal advantage was a fair reflection of an open 90 minutes of football. Vela showed glimpses in the first half and looked like he would create a chance every time he was on the ball, which isn't out of the ordinary for the 30-year-old, but Leon pressed, harried and restricted the space he was able to operate in, displaying an intensity Vela hasn't experienced too often in MLS.

"[Vela] is still the best Mexican player, for me," said Leon coach Ignacio "Nacho" Ambriz afterwards, repeating what he had stated pregame. "We knew that when he has the ball he makes [LAFC] play. We stopped him getting the ball cleanly, or tried to get players on him quickly ... it wasn't always possible."

Vela was roundly booed by Leon fans and insulted when he went to take corners and he didn't stop to talk to the Mexican press -- with whom he doesn't have a great relationship -- afterward. Bradley also expressed his shock at the reception Vela received.

"I was surprised that they were booing," said Bradley. "I think that Carlos is a player that needs games to be at his best."

LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye added: "Carlos is a good guy all the time. He leads on and off the field all the time. I'm satisfied with the way he performed. A lot of us have to try to raise our level to his game, so he did well."

Leon had the better opportunities and, crucially, LAFC didn't make the most of theirs. Brian Rodriguez had a chance to level right after León had taken the lead, but with Leon keeper Rodolfo Cota out of position, he could only shoot wide. In perhaps the game's most decisive moment, Ginella went through on goal eight minutes after halftime but failed to find the target. Overturning a two-goal deficit is a major ask for LAFC, but Banc of California Stadium will be full and the Black and Gold will be desperate to advance in a competition that the club is clearly motivated to win.

"Now we are at home we're going to show the full force of what LAFC is," said Kaye, who added the intense atmosphere wasn't a factor in the loss.

Leon is unlikely to change its style for the second leg, even with a 2-0 advantage. It's not in the team's makeup under Ambriz, even if last year's fine regular season form -- no Liga MX team won more games or scored more goals than Leon did in 2019 -- was slightly marred by losing the Clausura final to Tigres and then exiting against Morelia in the quarterfinal of the Apertura.

"Leon always plays the same, at home and away," said right-back Fernando Navarro. "So we're looking forward to an open game, we'll look to score more goals. We know the 2-0 isn't definitive, there are a lot of minutes to go."

LAFC's first visit to Mexico for the CONCACAF Champions League ended in disappointment, but with Vela in the side and Leon not usually Liga MX's most watertight defense, Bradley isn't giving up hope of what would be a famous turnaround.

"We weren't sharp in the attack and we made two big errors and paid the price," the LAFC head coach concluded. "Next week we have another chance in our stadium to put pressure on them from the beginning and get that first goal."

Information from Omar Flores and Javier Rosas was used in this story.