LOS ANGELES — LAFC have gotten to know their latest and next opponent very well. They have now faced the Vancouver Whitecaps four times this year, and will be playing three more matches against them in the new MLS playoffs first round format.
The Black and Gold bested the Canadian side in the CONCACAF quarterfinals but have since been unable to win against Vanni Sartini’s resilient side who ended their season in 6th place in the Western Conference. As LAFC tied the Vancouver Whitecaps at BMO Palace 1-1 in their final regular season match of 2023, falling to a 3rd place finish in the Western Conference standings, one silver lining is deserving of applause. Dénis Bouanga officially won the 2023 MLS Golden Boot after scoring his 20th goal in a race that came down to the last day of the MLS regular season – Decision Day 2023.
The Gabon international finished ahead of FC Cincinnati’s Luciano Acosta (17 goals) and Atlanta United’s Giorgos Giakoumakis (17 goals) to become the third LAFC player in the last five years to claim the esteemed honor. All three were wingers.
The 28-year-old Designated Player also scored 13 goals in 11 games across Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions Cup. “He knows how to score and make a difference in games. Denny can decide games,” head coach Steve Cherundolo said afterwards. “This is the player we scouted in Europe and hoping were to bring here and to have an impact and bring his tools to MLS.”
In the 34th minute against the Whitecaps, Bouanga bested five defenders as he approached the goal, and from outside the box struck the first goal of the night. But in the 58th minute, the Whitecaps’ Ali Ahmed capitalized on a string of passes by his teammates to equalize for the home team.
Bouanga finished out the season with his signature attacking blitz by scoring six goals in his final three matches, essentially rescuing LAFC’s playoffs finish in the top 4 of their conference. He also netted a league-high five multi-goal games and is second in goals in a single season in club history with Carlos Vela’s 34 in 2019 still holding the record.
The forward’s goal-scoring prowess helped LAFC finish third in the Western Conference and earn a berth in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs which means LAFC could become the fourth side in history to win consecutive MLS Cups. Having a deep knowledge of their immediate opponent and having home-field advantage hosting 2 of 3 of their upcoming matches, gives LAFC an edge they will need to draw upon.
Cherundolo and LAFC are taking it one step at a time, building on their strengths, and keeping their expectations simple. “I think things to improve on before next week, is to manage the opponent over 90 minutes and not just for 45. And I think if we can do that, we can advance into the next round,” he concedes.