COLUMBUS, Ohio – Of the several prominent personalities featuring in Saturday’s MLS Cup final between the Columbus Crew and LAFC (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free), none pose quite the combined menace of strikers Dénis Bouanga and Juan Camilo “Cucho” Hernandez, who finished first and fourth in the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race, respectively.
And the high praise emanating from both camps in the leadup reflects it, starting with the two men themselves.
“A very good player. He reminds me a lot of [Sergio] Kun Agüero,” Bouanga said in French of Cucho in Thursday’s press conferences. “He's a player with a lot of range and a lot of energy and he really, really wants to score and be out there on the field.”
Told of those words, Cucho responded in kind, without the slightest sign of ebb in focus on the trophy up for grabs at Lower.com Field.
“It took me by surprise that a player of such quality, one of the best players in the league, thinks that of me,” said the Colombian international. “But we know that on Saturday we'll be opponents and we'll give our all to bring glory to our respective clubs.”
"He's the full package"
As it turned out, comparing his cup-final counterpart to one of the greatest Argentine strikers of his generation was not idle talk by Bouanga. The Frenchman’s legendary teammate Giorgio Chiellini echoed the analogy in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com.
“They're the type of player who's more than a No. 9. Kun was one of the first to start to play in this way,” said the Italian legend. “Cucho has this fantastic ability to be a No. 9, but in a different way. He floats over the field to find the right position. He has pace, he has quality to shoot, he has quality to find a pass. He's their main danger and we have to be very aware of him, all the combinations that they put through him.”
That underlines the Colombian’s holistic impact in Columbus. First he struck up a fluid understanding with fellow attacker Lucas Zelarayán last year, then adapted quickly to offseason pickup Christian Ramírez and the return of winger Alex Matan from a loan stint in his native Romania – and did so again when a summer shift saw Zelarayán depart for Saudi Arabia and former LAFC star Diego Rossi arrive in his place.
Like a true modern spearhead, Cucho does it all, and with his own particular flavor.
“He's a very passionate guy, he loves the game and he obviously scores a lot of goals,” said the Crew’s Danish defender Malte Amundsen on Thursday morning at the Crew’s OhioHealth Performance Center training facility. “But not only that, he also helps the team in many other ways. I believe he has a lot of assists and more than that, he also does the dirty work. And that's what we've been talking about this week, that having these players also doing the dirty work is what makes us a great team.”
The Crew’s club-record (a reported $10 million) transfer signing has been worth every dollar to date.
“Yeah, he’s the full package,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo of Cucho on Tuesday. “He’s technically good, he’s physically good, he’s savvy, I think he’s intelligent, he knows where to float, kind of be off the shoulder of defenders, he’s played at a very high level.
“So we have our hands full, and shutting him down is unfortunately not the only task our defenders have, our team has, on Saturday. There are other prolific attackers on their team and it's obviously offensively a very talented team. But he's a big one.”
Even on a deep squad with myriad attacking angles and a coach eager to unleash as many of them as possible, the Crew look to one figure first, whether he’s at the tip of the spear or drifting between the lines.
“He's the man. He's so passionate, always wants to score, always wants to do what's right for the team,” said Columbus’ tenacious young center midfielder Aidan Morris of Cucho on Tuesday. “He's unlike any striker in the league, for me. I think he brings us more, like, dynamic energy. Give him the ball, find him in the right spots and he’ll make the magic happen.”
As productive as Hernández has been since arriving in Ohio from Watford last year, notching 32 goals and 17 assists in his first 46 matches across league, playoffs and Leagues Cup play, it’s well shaded by Bouanga’s absurd productivity over the same period: 40 goals and 13 assists in 56 combined MLS, Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions League appearances.
The winger’s speed, technique, power and clinical finishing have been astonishingly effective for the Angelinos, so much so as to enable them to mold their entire style of play in his image. Cherundolo has overseen a dramatic evolution from their press-and-possess ways under Bob Bradley, with rugged defensive organization – overseen by the iconic Chiellini – and cutthroat counterattacking that’s further elevated Bouanga’s skill set.
“When he came last season, it took a little bit for him to understand our model and our model to understand him,” said Cherundolo. “What Dénis does to opponents, physically and with the ball, he did in France. That was easy for everyone to see and for everyone to scout. I think what we've added is just kind of matched or married his qualities on and off the ball to our game model. And that sometimes takes time and coaching.”
Exhibit A: His game-winning goal in a tense 1-0 Western Conference Semifinal win over the Seattle Sounders, who otherwise dominated the proceedings at Lumen Field last month and still found their season ended at the Frenchman’s feet after he slashed open a fleeting space left behind right back Alex Roldan.
“He’s ruthless, simple as that,” said Crew wingback Julian Gressel. “When I watch the goal, for example, against Seattle, where he runs, makes a 50-yard sprint and doesn't slow down one bit to get an absolute quality shot off to score the goal. That goal, if you watch that, I think that is who he is. And that shows you how dangerous he can be, where he runs away from two guys with the ball at his feet, and at the same time, still adjusting his body enough to get the shot off without even slowing down.
“Every time you give them a little bit of a sniff, I think they can really hurt you. And that's a really dangerous quality.”
Trusting the game plan
It’s a particularly perilous threat for a Columbus side that already willingly walks a tactical tightrope by virtue of their swashbuckling positional-play system. Circulating the ball bravely and throwing numbers forward with abandon, Wilfried Nancy’s ethos reaped the most goals scored in MLS this year, albeit at the cost of plenty of opportunities for opponents.
Nancy & Co. insist they have no plans to compromise their own principles to blunt the danger of Bouanga, who will surely have taken note of how aggressively the Crew’s right flank of Steven Moreira and either Gressel or Mo Farsi involve themselves in buildup play.
“We know that we’re going to have to be good also when we have the ball, because they are really good in counterattack, and also when we don’t have the ball we’re going to have to be good also, to limit his space,” said Nancy, who also praised his French countryman’s decision to make his name in MLS after his time at St. Etienne ended in a traumatically disastrous relegation from Ligue 1.
“I’m not a guy that likes to do man-marking, but the idea was the closest guys are going to have to be really good, because we know that as soon as they get the ball, in two passes they can get in behind, and this is something that we know that they do really well. So we’re going to have to be balanced when we attack.”
Nancy’s intricate methodology revolves around trust in his players, and that in turn has fostered their commitment to his vision of how the game should be played. The proper execution of their approach, they believe, can stifle the influence of any rival, even a livewire like Bouanga.
“We're going be very good in our rest defense, because we know we want the ball and I hope we're going to have the ball a lot, which opens the pitch for them to counterattack,” said Amundsen. “Ultimately, it's for us to stay on our task and then do the same things. And then it's a question of whether we can complete our task or not, do a great job with that.”