LAFC's Bouanga eyes records, title and World Cup dream

Agence France-Presse
LAFC's Bouanga eyes records, title and World Cup dream
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 26: Los Angeles FC forward Denis Bouanga #99 controls the ball against the Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field on November 26, 2023 in Seattle, Washington.
Steph Chambers / Getty Images / AFP

LOS ANGELES, United States -- Los Angeles FC's French forward Denis Bouanga can add another milestone to his short but impactful career in Major League Soccer when his team take on Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference final on Saturday. 

The 29-year-old joined LAFC from Saint-Etienne, following the famous old club's relegation to the second division last year.

Bouanga, a late developer, had a strong final season in Ligue 1, scoring nine goals and providing six assists for "Sainte" and some eyebrows were raised when he decided to continue his career Stateside.

But the forward, who plays internationally for Gabon, the birthplace of his father, has rapidly become the most potent attacking threat in MLS after helping his club to the MLS Cup title last year.

So far this season, he has claimed the Golden Boot as top scorer in the regular season with 20 goals in 31 games.

He is now just a goal away from equalling the record goals in a year, in all competitions, for an MLS player having notched 37 in 2023 including seven in the CONCACAF Champions League and four so far in the MLS playoffs.

Bouanga's form suggests he could break that record set by his team-mate, Mexican Carlos Vela, with 38 goals in 2019.

The Le Mans born striker has 10 goals in his last six games and struck the winner in the 1-0 win at Seattle in last week's semi-final which kept alive LAFC's hopes of defending their title.

"If he has to score 10 goals to give us the trophy, it's perfect for us," said Vela.

"If he needs to score one each game and we win 1-0 then we are more than happy," he added.

- Dangerous -
With Bouanga's emergence as LAFC's main strike threat, the 34-year-old Vela has gradually dropped into a more creative role, leaving the scoring duties to his speedier team-mate.

"In the end, we have to put all individual things away and we will help put him in a good spot. He's in a really good moment, so we have to use that for us. I always say: When you have people scoring goals, and playing good, you have to give the ball in a good place to them. He can be dangerous," said Vela.

"We are working hard to be the best team in this league, so we have to use our best guys. Right now, Denis is one of them," he added.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo says, however, that there is much more to Bouanga's game than just his finishing.

"We are not concerned who scores the goals and neither is Denis. I think his goals have been a huge contribution to the group, but there’s been some other indirect contributions that he has. He attracts opposition players and that can open up space," he said.

Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau said Bouanga's smooth running, speed and eye for goal disguise a dedicated approach to his game.

"He is a player that can change a game in a matter of seconds. He can make a team pay for a mistake. He can clearly produce a moment of magic.

"But as a person, the work ethic that he has been putting in on the field, the work he does in front of goal, nobody really sees it but he is really trying to master his craft to get there," he said.

That work has delivered an MLS title, a runners-up spot in the CONCACAF Champions League where he also claimed the Golden Boot, as well as MLS All Star and Best XI selections.

He has the chance for a second MLS title if LAFC can get past Houston and then defeat Columbus or Cincinnati in the December 9 final but also has ambitions on the international scene, where he is targeting a place in the 2026 World Cup finals with Gabon.

“It's my biggest dream. I know it's really tough for African countries, but they're also expanding the number of teams that are going to be qualified, it’s going be (up to) 10 teams now," Bouanga said recently.

"It would be an honor. I really hope that I can represent Gabon at the World Cup in three years," he said.

And he believes he is in the right place to achieve his dreams.

"I think the MLS is the championship to be. It's evolving a lot, especially in three years with the World Cup in the United States, plus (Lionel) Messi coming to the MLS. I think a lot of players would like to come also play in MLS."

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