LOS ANGELES — Some people speak with their words, others with their actions. Denís Bouanga is that man – his comments to the media this year have been subtle and few, yet his abundance of exuberant goals has spoken volumes.
The 2023 Golden Boot winner is here to make his statement on the pitch where it counts. That impact was felt tonight at BMO Stadium as LAFC scored five goals to emphatically open their Round One MLS Cup Playoffs series against the Vancouver Whitecaps with a 5-2 resounding victory. This was the 49th competitive match of the year for LAFC and the reverberations of an up and down season have come down to a final push by the reigning MLS Cup champions to defend their title.
If the results go their way, the Black and Gold will have just four successful matches left in what has been their longest year to date. Bouanga wasn’t the only one to impact tonight’s results. His teammate Ryan Hollingshead spearheaded the attacking in the beginning of the match with a brace of his own. One last goal from Jesús Murillo rounded out the scoring for LAFC in the 80th minute.
As for Bouanga’s mission, he’s made it clear what his driving force is. “We lost two finals this year, which we want to go all the way up to the MLS Cup to erase these two finals in order to say that it was a successful year.” Bouanga stated in the post-match media availability. “We want to go all the way. And it’s a collective goal that everyone is working towards. Everybody has that in mind.”
The first half of the match provided plenty of action with both sides netting two goals each. In the 18th minute of action, Vancouver’s goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka initially stopped a Hollingshead header off a Carlos Vela cross, but Hollingshead sprung into action on a rebound with a left-footed strike. However, Vancouver replied with their own first goal in the 27th minute as Brian White’s right-footed strike off a through ball beat Maxime Crepeau.
LAFC regained the lead just two minutes later when Diego Palacios assisted Bouanga’s first goal of the night. The half ended with Vancouver tying the score 2-2 as Sam Adekugbe headed in a Ryan Gauld cross.
The second half tale was entirely different. LAFC were able to score three goals without a single reply from their opponent. First, Hollingshead’s scored his second goal of the match in the 52nd minute. It was his sixth goal of the season. Bouanga recorded his own second goal of the match in the 64th minute when his right-footed strike just outside the box went right past Takaoka. Lastly, defender Jesus Murillo made it 5-2 in the 80th minute off a header.
LAFC have struggled to maintain form throughout this lengthier than usual season. Their head coach Steve Cherundolo is no stranger to juggling scheduling with player management. When asked what the secret to the turnaround in LAFC’s offensive output over the last four matches in which they’ve scored 15 goals after going goalless in the three matches prior, he replied, “So pure repetition and training is one way to help gain confidence for players. So just give them a few more looks. The other way is to start enjoying the game and putting a smile on your face and playing with passion and enjoyment, not treating this like a job where we’re nervous for every touch or pay or pass. It’s a game we’ve all played since we were children and in some ways that is the easiest way to improve performances and go try to enjoy the game again. And I’ve seen some smiles on some faces tonight and in the previous weeks. So that is a step in the right direction.”
Saturday was the first-ever MLS Cup Playoffs meeting between LAFC and Vancouver. They face each other again Nov. 5 in Vancouver. While the victory was commendable and a harbinger of a healthy outlook for LAFC, this series is based on a best of three format and the players are treating their win with a grain of salt.
“You gotta look at what’s ahead of us. And potentially it can be four more games and it’s not going to be easy. Everyone has to put double the work and double the concentration. But it is something that we want to all achieve and on a personal note, just being able to enjoy football back again is amazing,” Maxime Crepeau concluded at the end of the night.