Throughout the 2023 MLS season, no attacker has struck fear into defenders quite like Dénis Bouanga.
With 20 goals and seven assists, boosted by a late-season scoring tear, LAFC’s star forward earned Golden Boot presented by Audi honors. And he’s one goal away from tying the league’s calendar-year goals record across all competitions, trailing only what teammate Carlos Vela (38) accomplished during his Landon Donovan MLS MVP-winning 2019.
Bouanga, in one word, is inevitable. He also reminds LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington of a CF Montréal all-time great who’s among the league’s best-ever talents.
“What Dénis is capable of doing, I would have to think hard about somebody that I have seen in our league do it better,” Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com. “But the one comparison I can think of, and he didn't have quite this level of productivity, but an ability to individually make plays, score goals from that position, was [Ignacio] Piatti in Montréal. Piatti was a little bit different. He was certainly a phenomenal athlete and strong runner, powerful guy. He could come in on his right foot and was a very good finisher.
“And with Dénis, the absolutely remarkable thing for me is his consistency and how he plays every minute of every game. His physical output is off the charts and his ability to finish with both feet, whether it's a first-time finish, whether he's setting up his own chances, he can create his own goals. He's like a force of nature, I guess, is the best way to put it.”
That’s not grandstanding or a victory lap from Thorrington, either. Bouanga has four goals in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, helping lead LAFC to Saturday’s final against the Columbus Crew (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free). With a road victory, the Black & Gold would become the first back-to-back champions since the LA Galaxy, their El Tráfico rival, accomplished that feat in 2011-12.
In short: Bouanga, a Gabon international and Best XI honoree, is LAFC’s safest bet for a man-of-the-match performance at Lower.com Field, one that could spoil the Crew’s homecoming dance. Both subjectively and statistically, the 29-year-old has charted a historic year.
“Unfortunately, in my job, that sort of profile and target and what they should mean for a group, you don't always get it right,” Thorrington said. “But in Dénis' case we did last year, thankfully. I just think people have seen more of it this year now. It's been a full year of feeling settled, and his productivity and level of play have been absolutely remarkable.”
In hindsight, it’s ironic to reflect on how Bouanga’s addition didn’t generate huge acclaim last summer. He joined as a Designated Player from French side Saint-Etienne after they got relegated to Ligue 2, with LAFC paying a reported $5 million transfer fee. But Bouanga arrived after the Black & Gold had already signed Welsh legend Gareth Bale and Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini on free deals as they respectively left Real Madrid and Juventus. By comparison, as the rich seemingly got richer, Bouanga didn’t quite have the same Hollywood appeal.
How that conversation, some 16 months later, has changed.
“As we entered that summer window, Dénis was the one who, profile-wise, fit absolutely perfectly to what we felt we needed at that moment in time,” Thorrington said. “We were in first place and I think there were some questions as to why do they need to change all these things? They have Chiellini, they have Bale, why would they do this?
“But we were convinced the team had done an incredible job to be where we were at that point in the season. And we did feel like we needed a little bit more to achieve our ultimate ambition to stay on top and win the Supporters' Shield and then win an MLS Cup.”
Vela: Final run?
As Bouanga’s star rises, LAFC’s reliance on Vela has waned. The Mexican superstar, signed six years ago as their inaugural player, is soon out of contract and could be playing his final MLS game Saturday afternoon in Ohio’s capital city. After being subbed out in last weekend’s Western Conference Final win over Houston Dynamo FC, he received an ovation from the BMO Stadium crowd as they potentially witnessed his final home game. The emotion from the Black & Gold faithful was palpable.
So, what does the future hold for LAFC’s captain?
“We would love for Carlos to come back next year,” Thorrington said. “We will have those conversations at appropriate times, and we have had conversations. I know it is not a secret to Carlos and his representatives that we would love to have him back. When those talks hopefully advance in the next few weeks, hopefully that results in a mutually beneficial situation for everybody.”
The decision, from afar, might involve Vela remaining a DP or not. The 34-year-old’s role, during LAFC’s run, has shifted into being a false No. 9 who creates for others in a front three flanked by Vela and Cristian Olivera. But his goalscoring is down and, like in all sports, tough decisions are sometimes made as rosters evolve. Making things more nuanced, Vela is also not just any player.
Whatever awaits, there’s no denying Vela has pushed LAFC into powerhouse status since their inaugural match in 2018.
“He has been the face of the club for years,” Thorrington said. “He has been an absolute pleasure to deal with and a joy to be around. I also think he is a very misunderstood player, but we have never had one hint of an issue with Carlos.
“It was a bold move we made and I'm grateful to owners who stepped up and made a significant investment to bring Carlos to LAFC. That has really paid off handsomely and I think Carlos' role, whether it be position on the field, has shifted a little bit over the years. But his impact in terms of what he means to this club has never wavered 100%.”
Both individually and collectively, few signings in MLS’ modern era are more impactful.
“It was a case of: What message are we sending to the world as to what LAFC is going to be? We started that with Carlos and he has done everything we ever could have hoped he would do and more,” Thorrington said.
All the while, despite widespread roster changes after 2022, LAFC carry an experienced group into Saturday’s match. Case in point: Head coach Steve Cherundolo’s first-choice XI now includes only two newcomers (Olivera and midfielder Timothy Tillman) who didn’t start their epic MLS Cup 2022 win over the Philadelphia Union. Fullback Sergi Palencia and midfielder Mateusz Bogusz, both also signed this year, have become key substitutes.
While the veteran core largely remains, change was inevitable as well.
“In your question, you said keeping a championship team together is difficult,” Thorrington said. “In our case, just with where we were at contractually with players and commitments and bonuses, et cetera, keeping that team together was actually impossible. That was challenge number one.
“We know this team's not coming back, so what changes are the most efficient for us in terms of giving ourselves the best chance to be where we are now, which is to repeat?”
LAFC got to work, bidding farewell to Bale (retirement), now-Real Salt Lake striker Cristian Arango (transfer to Pachuca), now-Houston Dynamo defender Franco Escobar (free agency) and more. Then midseason, forward Kwadwo Opoku was traded to CF Montréal and midfielder José Cifuentes left on a transfer to Scotland’s Rangers FC.
In total, the Black & Gold made over 30 transactions this year (incoming or outgoing). Continuity and change, they’re both natural within MLS' structure.
“I would have loved to keep that 2022 team together,” Thorrington said. “But we lost [nearly] every single free agent we had because we simply couldn't afford them. We had to sell our top scorer from that team in order to fund the improvements we needed.
“It was a really, really busy offseason – or what I call my onseason. Thankfully, and this is a credit to the staff we have here, we were able to identify the players, perform that surgery that we needed and then bring in the players that we thought would help contribute to success this year.”
That success includes a major box to check off, though. LAFC, in navigating an at-times-grueling season, are preparing for their 53rd match of the year. And a title has proven elusive, most painstakingly falling to Liga MX's Club León in the Concacaf Champions League final across late May/early June.
For all their ups and downs, LAFC are getting hot at the right time. That’s, in many ways, what the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs are about.
“Dealing with disappointment during a season is really hard,” Thorrington said. “I think normally, if you lose a final and you have a hard time, it is oftentimes at the end of a season. But the fact that this group has shown the resolve to recover from and withstand a season unlike any season that any team has ever had in our league, just speaks volumes about the character of this group.
"Now seeing them come together in such a strong way when it really counts, when it's all on the line, is incredibly gratifying to see.”
There’s still one more mountaintop to climb, Thorrington notes. Doing so would give them two MLS Cups in just six years of competing.
“What '23, thematically, says to me is this group has had to work harder than any group has ever had to get to where we are,” Thorrington said. “And I think there's a lot of satisfaction that can be drawn from being where we are. But the ultimate satisfaction is still one step away.”