What’s it like to defend one-on-one against Denis Bouanga?

Ask around MLS, and players and coaches are likely to rank LAFC’s ferociously talented French-Gabonese winger as one of the league’s toughest individual matchups, if not the very top. The teammates who see him in practice every day recognize it, even if there’s something extra special about him on match nights.

“Luckily I see a little bit different of a Denis in training. He’s not quite the same as he is out on those fields when the lights are on and the fans are going crazy,” said LAFC fullback Ryan Hollingshead last week. “He gives me a little bit more of like the ‘B’ version of Denis. But still … it’s the exact guy that I want to be going up against, because if I can defend him, I can defend anybody in this league. So I definitely don’t envy playing against Denis on a Saturday night at 7:30 at BMO [Stadium], for sure. That’s when he just comes to life and he’s just a next-level sort of talent where he can take games over.”

A "nightmare" to defend

The list of team and individual awards Bouanga’s accrued since his arrival from Saint-Étienne in August 2022 shows the scope of his impact: MLS Cup 2022, last year’s Western Conference title, two All-Star nods, Golden Boot and Best XI honors in both MLS and Concacaf Champions Cup (née League).

“As good as any player I've seen in our league,” said Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin, who faced Bouanga in the ‘22 Cup final and played center back in MLS from 2001-09. “He wins games for them individually, with his play, with the special qualities that he has, and he's a nightmare to prepare for as a coach, because it's not a one-person job. It makes you shift your whole team towards his side.”

Usually deployed in an inverted role on LAFC’s left flank, Bouanga is breathtakingly direct, eager to cut inside and hammer shots with his preferred right foot but also adept at racing to the endline for cutbacks. He's scored 41 goals and 16 assists across 66 combined regular-season and playoff appearances to date, and over that time he’s played a whopping 91 key passes, a statistic that describes passes that lead directly to the creation of a goalscoring opportunity.

“For me, he is the best attacker I faced in MLS so far. He’s in our Western\] Conference so we get to play them a lot,” [Portland Timbers right back Juan Mosquera, a Colombian international with Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana experience, told MLSsoccer.com in Spanish last week. “It’s difficult because he has such a high quality. He’s a player who runs at goal a lot, he’s a player who is very fast, who doesn’t let you know when he’ll move inside or when he’ll use his left foot.

“For both games against Los Angeles, you have to plan a bit differently to prepare for how they attack. He’s the most dangerous player in the league.”

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There’s a forcefulness about Bouanga, a palpable sense of power and menace tangible in the stadium when he’s on the pitch, that even transmits through the screen on a broadcast. He’s constantly hungry to score, to create big chances for his teammates, particularly when he sees an opportunity to skin a defender in the process.

He’s not a twinkle-toed stepovers king; there’s no wasted movement. Just a ferocious nose for goal and the pace to get there in a hurry.

“His biggest thing is probably just how explosive he is with his change of direction. He's not really like fancy footwork. It's kind of weird, usually you see the more difficult guys are the guys with the fancy footwork who make you dive in,” said Minnesota United fullback D.J. Taylor. “Really I think where you see a lot of Bouanga beating other players is the change of direction and how quick he can be.”

Taylor has fared better against Bouanga than most, helping the Loons hold him scoreless in LAFC’s 2023 and ‘24 visits to Allianz Field – though the winger ran riot in the reverse fixtures at BMO Stadium, scoring a hat trick in a 5-1 win last year and finding the net in a 2-0 win back in May.

For the North Carolina native and many of his peers, the Bouanga assignment is a semiannual measuring stick, a test of where one stands against the league’s elite.

“Yeah, it's been fun for me. You always want to measure yourself, no matter what league you're in, going against the best attackers, validating myself as one of the best defenders,” Taylor told MLSsoccer.com, noting that he considers last season’s home win one of the best individual performances of his MLS career. “I enjoy defending 1v1, I enjoy quote-unquote being on that island, as people say.

“As a defender, when you play against players like Bouanga, the biggest thing is you have to put yourself on the hook, if that makes sense,” he added. “If I give him space, he’s just going to have a field day. So I have to go and make a statement like, ‘I'm here,’ not letting him think too much, closing him down really quickly – which for some defenders is kind of scary because you're on the hook, where you're covering more space when you're closer. And when you're closer, you have to make faster, split-second decisions.”

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Andrew Brody, who’s helped Real Salt Lake take wins in two of their last three league meetings with LAFC, agrees.

“I think it's just about knowing tendencies. I mean, obviously he's a great player,” said the fullback. “What's totally unique about him is he has both feet, he can get a shot off with either the right or left. So as an outside back, you have to be aware of that. You can't really give him an inch of space.

“You could defend well against him for 89 minutes, and then he gets a 1v1 situation with you in the 90th and he can change the game. So I think it's about being locked in for 90-plus minutes, knowing that he's going to be a threat.”

Taylor reckons that MNUFC’s use of a five-man backline has helped them deal with Bouanga, providing the right wingback with three central defenders for cover. Other adversaries might be reluctant to change their entire formation for that one factor, yet whatever the shape, the comfort of help in reserve can be massive.

“I'm always just there just in case he gets by our outside backs, but he's just a threat because he's so fast,” said RSL center back Justen Glad, who joked that those LAFC matches make him thankful he’s not a fullback. “He can go right or left, he can shoot with both feet. So you have to be ready for the balls in behind, you have to be ready for if he's dribbling at you. He's just very dynamic.

“That caliber of player, it just takes one moment for them to capitalize. So no matter what, they're in every game, just because it only takes one chance.”

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Therein lies a valuable psychological advantage for LAFC that runs deeper than Bouanga’s skill set and productivity.

“These players are, number one, the hardest to find in the world. Also, they give belief to the entire team, which is so so powerful,” said Curtin, “because now when you talk about a Bouanga, he's the type of player that LAFC and Stevie Cherundolo, who is an incredible coach, know that [if] they're not at their sharpest on the day, there's a guy out there that can win them the game by himself. He is, I think, the definition of that.”

The personal nature of those individual battles hits at the core of a fullback’s identity and the psychological layers of the position. The Houston Dynamo lost last year’s Western Conference final 2-0 to LAFC, but their right back Griff Dorsey had little choice but to approach that massive game with an almost-obsessive focus on limiting the damage inflicted by his opposite number, even in the dying minutes with the result all but settled.

“That really was my goal going into the game defensively, was keeping Denis Bouanga off the scoresheet,” he recalled to MLSsoccer.com on Friday. “Obviously the game didn't go our way, but for me to keep him off the scoresheet in a game like that was one of my top priorities. At the end of the game, running him down in the last minutes of the game was one of the key moments.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, for many players, these type of matchups add to the appeal of life in MLS, where Bouanga heads a hefty list of fearsome left-sided attackers eager to expose right backs.

“It’s a dream for me to be here in MLS facing these types of players. I’d like to go to Europe and keep facing those types of players; this is a great learning experience for me,” said Mosquera. “There are many players in MLS that have those qualities, but I think he’s a case apart. On the field we talk and interact a lot.

“My first game at home with the Timbers was against Los Angeles and I had to face him. From that moment on there was a precedent, and a duel was formed. We know he makes Los Angeles different and he has the quality that makes him difficult [to defend]. You can watch his videos and study how he attacks, but sometimes he’s unpredictable in the actual game.”

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Power and pace

Dorsey, Taylor and Mosquera have the benefit of being speedy in their own right, which gives them the confidence to get touch-tight with Bouanga even if it leaves space behind them – a luxury not every fullback can afford.

But the French-born winger is both fast AND quick, able to create separation in multiple contexts.

“He’s a player who needs a lot of space because of how fast he is, so I think cutting that space might help so that he’s not running at you, and you can force him into a shorter 1v1,” said Mosquera. “I know that I can match him on speed but on shorter spaces, so it’s easier for me because if it’s a longer distance going towards the box, it’s tougher and he’s that much more dangerous.”

Above all, one key trait that comes up over and over in these conversations is Bouanga’s sheer mercilessness. His combination of skill, speed, aggression and physical capacity means that he can sustain actions over a full match that other attackers cannot.

“He's a hard worker. Facing other wingers in MLS or any other attackers in MLS, they don't have enough energy to keep doing the same thing for 90 minutes, attacking every time,” said Sporting Kansas City homegrown Jake Davis of Bouanga. “When we played them this year, for 90 minutes this guy was either making runs or trying to get in behind, he was trying to get at me with the ball. And I think that's the difference: For the whole game, he's looking to score and assist, to make the final play, and that's what makes it hard.

“He was doing the same things for 90 minutes. He didn’t lose quality over the whole game.”

Curtin harks back to two legends of the league’s first two decades: Jaime Moreno, whose attacking exploits for D.C. United powered the league’s first dynasty, and Landon Donovan, the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy icon whose name now graces the MLS MVP trophy.

“When you talk about 1v1, these guys tend to be faster with the ball at their feet than they are without it, which is, for those that don't know, a really incredible skill. And he gets stronger as the game gets longer,” said the Union boss.

“Landon ran at you in the 93rd minute as fast as he did in the 10th, and that's what the difference was when he played against average, crappy MLS defenders like myself, you know what I mean? He could go at that maximum when I was exhausted at the end of the game mentally, physically, because I didn't have the engine that they did, and the relentlessness.”

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There’s a line of thinking that Bouanga’s influence can be reduced by an attack-minded fullback pushing forward in possession, limiting his touches and challenging him to track back and do more of the dirty work against the ball.

“When I recover a ball, I can go on the attack too, and I know it can tough for him. I know once I go on the attack, he won’t follow me,” said Mosquera.

“Personally, I don’t only focus on marking him well, but also on attacking him. I know the type of quality I have as well, so you better be sure that I will go on the attack as well.

“I love these moments and I take them with a lot of pride.”

There are limits to this, however, which hinge primarily on LAFC’s consistent excellence in transition under coach Steve Cherundolo. It only takes one fleeting collective breakdown to provide a pocket of space into which the Black & Gold can feed Bouanga and/or front line mates like Mateusz Bogusz and Kike Olivera for an incisive counterattack.

“As an attacker, that's where he utilizes his energy the most,” said Dorsey, who over the past two years has emerged as one of MLS’s top two-way threats at right back. “LAFC, the way that they play, they want their forwards to have that energy throughout the entirety of the game.

“So as an attacking outside back, it’s important to understand when it's kind of time to utilize your energy going forward and try to exploit maybe some of his defensive work, but also making sure you have energy to take that 90th-minute run back to defend Denis Bouanga and make sure he doesn't do something which, unfortunately, all game when you're playing against him, there's always a chance for him doing something.”

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El Tráfico awaits

All that makes the concept of ‘rest defense’ absolutely vital against them.

“It's more of the transitional moments is where I feel like he is by far the most dangerous,” noted Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney, who will try to nullify Bouanga’s threat when his team duels LAFC in a much-anticipated El Tráfico derby at the Rose Bowl on Thursday (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). “In our possessions, we've got to make sure we are secure as we can be with the ball, that we can't just lose balls in bad places. And we've got to make sure that we're positionally disciplined, that we have players who are always taking account of specifically him, but any of their guys who can break out in transition.

“Their greatest strength is in that phase of the play of the game. So we've got to be able to have the right guys and the right players to manage transitions; try to slow him down or to keep him to the outside. It's easier said than done, as we know with him, because he's such a direct player and he's so shifty to be able to kind of fake like he's going to go wide and get back to the inside … he's not the only threat, but he certainly is a guy that drives a lot of things for them in those moments.”

It’s almost as if Bouanga was front of mind when the Galaxy signed Japanese right back Miki Yamane last winter. The cerebral J-League veteran has quietly been a vital cog in the Gs’ efforts to shore up their leaky back line, constantly minding their collective structure, often snuffing out counterattacking danger before it starts.

Both Vanney and Cherundolo were defenders in their own highly accomplished playing days, the latter a right back who made a name for himself over a long career at Bundesliga club Hannover 96. He compares Bouanga to a certain French superstar he had to reckon with when Hannover faced mighty Bayern Munich.

“It was Louis van Gaal’s Bayern Munich, who spread the field out, put the wingers wide; those wingers were Arjen Robben and [Franck] Ribery, and I had Ribery running at me for 90-plus minutes a lot,” Cherundolo recalled. “And you can't shut players like that down. It's not just the individual. It's also the players behind him putting him in good positions to expose outside backs, or to isolate center backs with those wingers. And we try to do the same.

“From the outside back perspective, I think you have to understand that you're not going to be successful all the time. But how can you minimize the chance, or the size of the chance, or the quality of the chance by understanding details of the players – left-footed, right-footed, what's more common for them? When do they go left? When do they go right? There's a lot of video work that I think maybe isn't being done on individual qualities of players and how to shut them down. And we have seen teams double up Denis, which should open up other players, but that has been successful in the past.”

That’s just a sample of the chess match which will unfold during El Tráfico. And with LAFC now occupying first place in the West, riding a 9W-1L-1D streak dating back to late April, the rest of MLS will likely be taking detailed notes.

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