Voices: Bradley Wright-Phillips

Denis Bouanga: LAFC’s Golden Boot winner has another level to reach 


I vividly remember the conversation.

I was really young, just breaking into the Manchester City first team, and a club legend, Mike Summerbee, told me this before a match: “I'm going to simplify the game for you. When you get the ball, head to goal.” I had never really done that. I was always more about holding the ball up, laying it off, running into the box, or just playing simple. It wasn’t my style to be so single-minded.

Now, when I watch Denis Bouanga running down the wing for LAFC, it reminds me of that exchange. And it’s not as easy as it looks! But Bouanga is so relentless, so positive, so direct. He picks up the ball and he's going to goal, always thinking he will score. His stamina to do it repeatedly, sprint after sprint, is incredible.

Take his goal at Seattle in last year’s playoffs. He received the ball just inside the Sounders’ half, blew by a few defenders and, without needing much of a windup, launched it past Stefan Frei. 1-0 and LAFC were moving on to the Western Conference Final, then soon after another MLS Cup.

That goal is breathtaking because Bouanga doesn’t slow down with the ball at his feet. It might look natural or easy from afar, but a player shouldn't be able to hit the ball like that while running full speed. Normally, you need to slow down so you can concentrate on your technique, get that swing to create power. But Bouanga doesn't have any backlift. It’s just pick your spot, shoot, goal. Most players would have curled the ball to the far corner, but he hits it with straight laces. It requires so much technique and precision. Everything about it is executed at a really high level.

Moments like that were part of Bouanga reaching 38 (!) goals in 2023, tying Carlos Vela for the MLS calendar-year record across all competitions. He won Golden Boots in both MLS and Concacaf Champions League, was the MVP runner-up, a Best XI forward – the man was on a mission, borderline unstoppable.

El Tráfico opportunity

Yet, here in 2024, I don't think Bouanga’s fully got going, scoring just two goals through six matches. With El Tráfico on Saturday, it would be the perfect time to show us the Bouanga we saw last season (7:45 pm ET | Apple TV - Free, FOX). Would it really surprise anyone if he scores a couple of goals against the LA Galaxy?

If I'm Bouanga, I have no problem thinking I'm the best player in Los Angeles right now – and he has a lot of reason to believe it. There are great players in that conversation: Joseph Paintsil and Riqui Puig on the Galaxy, Eduard Atuesta on LAFC. But Bouanga, he can honestly walk into BMO Stadium come Matchday 8 and think ‘I'm the best player here.’ He can have the biggest impact on that game and be the one everyone’s talking about after 90 minutes as the hero.

The interesting part is, aside from maybe their expansion season, it’s the first time in years that LAFC enter El Tráfico as underdogs. That’s because, like Bouanga, LAFC are still finding their way in 2024. They’ve taken just seven points from six matches (2W-3L-1D) after roster turnover in the winter. Maybe that puts a chip on LAFC’s shoulder, gives them a point to prove. The Galaxy have been a lot better this season, leading the Western Conference with 12 points from six matches (3W-0L-3D), and they enter as the clear favorite. How do Bouanga and his teammates respond?

This is also Bouanga’s first El Tráfico since he signed a contract extension in early March, getting rewarded for all he’s shown in MLS. Now it’s like, “I'm here to stay. This is my team. I can carry this.” He is LAFC’s new Vela, in a way. Whatever LAFC do or don’t accomplish in the years ahead, we’ll be talking about Bouanga. If he fails, they fail. If he thrives, they thrive. And if you see LAFC this season, they haven't been at their standard. Bouanga also hasn't scored too many goals. These two things are closely linked.

French connection

Everything could change this summer, though. We were talking on This is MLS about what type of player LAFC need to add with their open Designated Player spots and I said Alexandre Lacazette. Everyone laughed at me a bit, but I said that because you need a No. 9 who holds up the ball, can pin the two center backs to free up Bouanga. Fast forward a few weeks and who’s reportedly joining LAFC this summer? Another Frenchman and former Arsenal striker, Olivier Giroud.

There’s no better true No. 9 option than Giroud as somebody who’s going to occupy center backs and create space for teammates. And it solves what we’re seeing this season, where if you lock down Bouanga, you have a good chance of beating LAFC. Imagine you put Giroud in that front line; opponents can’t just think about Bouanga. You now have to pay attention to Giroud, Bouanga, Cristian Olivera on the other side, young David Martínez even. They’d all have more room to play LAFC’s style. But most of all, there’s this: Denis Bouanga with space and time in transition is the best player in MLS. That move, for Denis, has to happen.

Golden touch

I also wouldn’t be surprised, especially if Giroud arrives from AC Milan, that Bouanga repeats as the Golden Boot presented by Audi winner. He can easily hit 30 goals in a season, something we’ve seen just twice in MLS before: Josef Martínez (31) in 2018 with Atlanta United and Vela (34) in 2019 with LAFC. With the amount of shots he takes and the amount of chances he gets in a game, he can easily reach those heights.

Bouanga won the Golden Boot with 20 goals last year. But if you think back to the chances he missed and if he had just done something a little different or got a bit more fortune, that number’s way higher. His style of play, how he plays, how positive he is, how confident he is, he's made to get 30 goals.

This all circles back to one truth: When I look at Bouanga, I see a player who can play in any league. Everything he does translates to the highest levels. It must be a nightmare trying to defend him with his speed, his power, his pace. But it’s also his footballing ability and when he does run by you, he's hitting the target, he's scoring the goal, so he punishes you more often than not. And not a lot of players do that consistently like Bouanga.

We all remember the summer of 2022, when LAFC brought in Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini… and Bouanga. Nobody really knew much about him in comparison. But here we are, nearly two years later, and his impact on this team is immense. Bouanga’s brought that attack to another level. What a signing, what a player.