How Denis Bouanga’s scoring impact fueled LAFC’s winning ways

LAFC was 45 minutes away from kicking off its fourth game of the MLS regular season when Denis Bouanga, the team’s leading scorer, walked into the dressing room.

“We were shocked,” teammate Kellyn Acosta remembered.

Not because Bouanga was late, but because he was there at all.

Twenty-four hours earlier, he had boarded a flight in Gabon, the first leg of a daylong return from international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations qualifying tournament. LAFC didn’t expect him back for at least another day.

Instead, Bouanga rushed over from the airport, entered the game midway through the second half and scored the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over FC Dallas.

“He told me beforehand that that was his plan. And I was like, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Acosta said. “I mean, it’s not like a three-hour trip.

“But it shows his character. He’s excited to be here. He’s excited to contribute. He’s played a pivotal role in every single game.”

Indeed it’s unlikely LAFC would be where it is — in the CONCACAF Champions League final and leading the MLS Western Conference in points per game — without Bouanga. His nine goals in 10 games top the league and his 15 goals in 16 games in all competition is reminiscent of Carlos Vela’s record-setting 2019 season, when he scored 38 times in 35 games.

“The last player to be in that kind of form was maybe Carlos in 2019. And that did last the entire season,” coach Steve Cherundolo said. “If [Bouanga] can keep this going to the end of the season, I think we’ll all be pretty happy.”

So far he has shown no signs of slowing, scoring in four of his last five games heading into Wednesday’s home match against Sporting Kansas City. And most of his goals have mattered, with Bouanga accounting for the winning or tying score seven times for LAFC (11-2-4 in all competition).

“He’s your prototypical modern footballer. He’s got size, he’s got speed, he’s got strength, he’s got uncanny technical ability, he’s got an uncanny nose for the goal. He’s Thierry Henry-like,” Real Salt Lake coach Pablo Mastroeni said, comparing Bouanga to the former World Cup and European champion.

“You can play him out wide, you can play him in the middle. You know you’re going to get speed, technique, strength and goal-scoring. He’s just a complete package.”

Off the field, however, he hardly stands out. Up close, he seems shorter and thinner than the physical beast opponents have been forced to confront, and his smile and polite manner are disarming. Even his English is far better than he lets on, though he insists on using an interpreter for extended interviews.

“I think he’s shy in front of others,” Acosta said.

That might be changing. After eight seasons with four teams in France’s top two leagues, Bouanga, 28, came to LAFC at the end of last season, with his first MLS goal clinching a Supporter’s Shield title.

He scored two more in a playoff-opening win against the Galaxy, helping LAFC to an MLS Cup win. But he has really hit stride this season with four multigoal games, including his first two career hat tricks. His 15 goals on the season are one short of his single-season high.

LAFC forward Denis Bouanga moves the ball during the second half against Nashville SC.

LAFC forward Denis Bouanga moves the ball during the second half on the road against Nashville SC on April 22.

(George Walker IV / Associated Press)

“Why I’m so good on the field is because I fit well in the MLS; in the club and in Los Angeles,” said Bouanga, who came to L.A. with wife Maella and the couple’s two children, a 5-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl.

“My teammates and friends helped me to achieve that. The coach and the players trust me, so it helps me to be confident on the [field]. I want to give them back the trust. It’s a team that goes forward a lot and that’s how I play. That creates a lot of space for me. I can play my game.”

Bouanga, whose guaranteed salary of $2.083 million trails only Vela on the LAFC roster, says MLS is more physical and attack-minded than the French leagues, which play a technical, defensive style. But that doesn’t fully explain an increase in productivity that has seen Bouanga score three times as often this season as he did in eight previous professional seasons.

“His qualities are his qualities,” Cherundolo said. “Whether or not a player turns potential into reality has to do a lot with his teammates putting him in good positions in order to succeed. Then it’s up to the player in those deciding moments to be focused and to be physically in a position where he can play all the time.

“It’s never just a run or, or by chance. It’s a lot of hard work as well.”

Acosta, who has befriended Bouanga partly because their lockers are side by side, has witnessed that hard work and sees no reasons why the hot streak can’t continue.

“The sky’s the limit,” he said.

“His ability kind of just blossomed. He was able to find his way. He’s a guy that moves with confidence. And then on the field, he showcases his talents. I think we’ve only seen the beginning. I think he could even do more.”

Bouanga agrees, although rumors have surfaced of a future return to Europe, perhaps with Olympique de Marseille, the French club run by former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. For the time being, however, Bouanga has a typically American warning for future MLS opponents: You ain’t seen nothing yet.

“My main concern is always the game I play, and I think about the next one after that,” he said. “I just hope that I can continue like that the whole season.

“I’m not surprised, but I also know that I can be better.”

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