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Dénis Bouanga leads LAFC into the MLS Cup final against the Crew

When LAFC advanced to last season's MLS Cup final, Dénis Bouanga was still finding his way on a new team and in a new country.
Columbus Crew forward Cucho Hernández (9) reacts after scoring goal against Orlando City during over time of an MLS soccer playoff match, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Kevin Kolczynski)

When LAFC advanced to last season's MLS Cup final, Dénis Bouanga was still finding his way on a new team and in a new country.

Bouanga was still important to the team's finish and run in the playoffs last year, but this season's Golden Boot winner is far more comfortable as he aims to help LAFC secure a second straight title.

"I was a part of the preseason so it was easier than last year. Last year, I arrived just for the MLS Cup and we won, but I was not really at my level," he said. "This year, because I started in the preseason, I was able to step up my game being with the team on the field, but also on the language.”

LAFC visits the Columbus Crew on Saturday in the MLS Cup title match. Los Angeles can become just the fourth team in league history with back-to-back championships — and the first since the LA Galaxy won in 2011 and 2012.

Bouanga made the most of his full year in Los Angeles, taking home the Golden Boot award after scoring 20 goals. He also had seven assists. He had 37 goals across all competitions.

The French winger, who plays internationally for Gabon, played with Saint-Étienne before he signed with LAFC in August 2022. His game-winning goal against the Portland Timbers helped Los Angeles secure the 2022 Supporter's Shield.

“I think when he came last season, I think it took time for him to understand our model, and for us to understand him,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said.

Last season, LAFC prevailed on penalties after a 3-3 draw with the Philadelphia Union to win the title. But goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau fractured his leg in extra time and wasn't able to celebrate with his teammates. The injury also dashed his hopes to play in goal for Canada at the World Cup in Qatar.

Crépeau returned to the club this July and played five games with LAFC2 before rejoining the senior team in late September. He's got three shutouts in the postseason.

“He has continued with his strength, his explosiveness, more touches on the ball, more comfortable playing out of the back,” Cherundolo said. ”And then for any goalkeeper, it's always about shot stopping. I think he just continues down the path he had all season, getting better and better and better. And now he's obviously in great form."

LAFC will face a defensive challenge in the Crew, who scored 67 goals in the regular season, more than any other team. They also led the playoff field with 13 goals.

Columbus, like LAFC, was a No. 3 seed but got to host the title game because of a better regular-season point total. They advanced on a 3-2 victory over the top seed and Supporters Shield winner, FC Cincinnati, in the Eastern Conference finals.

Cucho Hernandez has led the team with four goals and two assists through the team’s five playoff games. In the conference championship against Cincinnati, he served a header to Christian Ramirez for the game-winner in the 115th minute.

Hernandez led the Crew with 16 goals and 11 assists this season.

“He's a full package,” Cherundolo said. “He's technically good, he's physically good. Savvy. I think he's intelligent, he knows where to float, kind of being off the shoulder of defenders, is playing at a very high level. He's the full package so we have our hands full.”

Like Bouanga, Hernandez joined Columbus midway through the 2022 season. And he's also become more comfortable this season.

“I am very pleased about the experience that I have had and been able to reach here in MLS," Hernandez said. “I believe that it’s been the correct decision that I’ve made in my life and also in my playing career."

The Crew also won MLS Cup titles in 2008 and 2020.


AP soccer:

Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press