Dénis Bouanga became more comfortable with his surroundings in his first full season in MLS after joining LAFC from Ligue 2 side Saint-Etienne in Aug. 2022 and, as a result, the goals flowed like French wine.
The Gabon international won the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi for his 20 goals and seven assists in the MLS regular season. But the 28-year-old Designated Player showed remarkable consistency no matter the competition.
"Denis' goals are irreplaceable," LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said ahead of the Western Conference Final win over Houston Dynamo FC. "That is the case for any attacker in any team: Goals are what separates teams in this sport and that's how you win games. And so I think the goals are obviously his biggest contribution to the group. There are some indirect contributions he has because of his prolific nature; he attracts defenders and that can open up spots for other players and open up opportunities for other players."
The 2023 MLS Cup will be LAFC’s 53rd game of the calendar year. Battle-tested? You bet. LAFC navigated the rigors and pitfalls of the Concacaf Champions League (now the Concacaf Champions Cup) to reach the final for the second time in club history, only to fall to Club Léon 3-1 on aggregate.
All told, 53 games across five competitions. To survive that you need a deep roster and there’s been no team in MLS with a deeper roster than LAFC this season.
Things weren't looking great for LAFC after the summer. They simply looked spent. After their Leagues Cup ouster to Monterrey, the Black & Gold lost three consecutive matches (after a 4-0 drubbing of the Colorado Rapids) — falling to Charlotte FC, Inter Miami CF and the Portland Timbers.
"We're in a negative moment ... things are, in the offensive end, really difficult for us," Cherudolo said after the 2-0 loss to the Timbers on Sept. 9. "Goals are hard to come by at the moment, and we're making individual errors as well, on the defensive end, which are costing us. Every mistake we make is being punished, and our half-chances in the offensive end are not being capitalized on.”
From that point out, which is also when their match congestion eased a bit, LAFC lost just once (a Campeones Cup PK shootout defeat to Tigres notwithstanding), going 3-1-3 down the stretch of the regular season.
A broken leg suffered on a DOGSO red-card challenge against the Philadelphia Union late in MLS Cup 2022 meant Maxime Crépeau missed out on the locker room champagne celebration after LAFC’s thrilling win. And he also missed out on a trip to Qatar to compete in the FIFA World Cup with Canada.
The 29-year-old worked his way back to fitness and made his first start of the 2023 season in the aforementioned El Tráfico win. He has five clean sheets, three straight in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, which include a sensational seven-save performance in a 1-0 win over Seattle Sounders FC in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“Max came back really strong; he really wanted to come back and help us. We had low moments, but Max was here today, he has a big mentality and it helps a lot,” Bouanga said through a translator after that win. “Max is a really great player and tonight he was amazing.”
Bouanga is on a near record-breaking scoring pace, but to reach this year's MLS Cup, there needed to be contributions from others, sometimes from unexpected sources.
Enter Ryan Hollingshead. The veteran fullback, in his second season with LAFC after eight years with FC Dallas, scored four goals in the regular season.
The 32-year-old already has three in four playoff games, including the match-winner in the Western Conference Final.
If you’re keeping score, he’s one off Bouanga’s club lead for playoff goals.