"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … [who] fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Theodore Roosevelt, "Citizenship in a Republic"
10. NEW LIFE IN LEÓN
The final seconds of stoppage time were melting away, and it looked like Club León had secured a 2-0 win at home in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League final on May 31. Then Carlos Vela played a ball ahead to sprinting wingback Sergi Palencia who, after a glance toward goal, sent a long cross into the danger area. With the final kick of the game, Dénis Bouanga, who would go on to become North America’s top goal scorer in 2023, tapped it into León’s net, then went on a celebratory sprint down the sideline, basking in the hope he had just given his team.
LAFC’s loss in the second leg of the final meant that Bouanga’s goal would not be enough to raise the CCL trophy, but after the Club’s second appearance in the final (LAFC’s first was in 2020) the Black & Gold committed itself to returning to the renamed tournament (it’s now Concacaf Champions Cup) with the aim of winning the trophy.
9. MLS CUP FINAL
Once again, LAFC’s supporters filled passenger jets then filled the streets surrounding their opponents’ home stadium. The date was December 9, and the grid of roads that converged at Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio, contained as much LAFC gold as Columbus Crew yellow.
The 2023 MLS Cup Final marked the end of a nine-month odyssey for LAFC that no other club in Major League Soccer has endured, or even attempted, in the league’s 27-year existence. By the time the Club flew to Columbus, the Black & Gold had already played a record 52 total games across all competitions and had appeared in two finals. LAFC had repeated as Western Conference champions, had claimed the first two postseason road victories in Club history, and had gone toe-to-toe with Liga MX power Tigres UANL in a Campeones Cup final that was decided by penalty kicks.
In the cold Ohio rain, LAFC fought back from a 2-0 deficit, but eventually fell to the Crew, 2-1. Head coach Steve Cherundolo said afterward: “The season was a success for us regardless of the result tonight. I don’t think any other team has done what we have done.”
“It was a fantastic journey,” said defender Giorgio Chiellini, “that will remain in our mind and in our heart for all our lives.”
8. CONFERENCE LEADERS VISIT BMO
Heading into its home match against St. Louis CITY SC on July 12, LAFC was not at its best moment. The club had gone 0-3-1 in its previous four games and had scored just seven goals over the previous six weeks. The scoring drought persisted through 71 minutes against Western-Conference-leading St. Louis, until Jose Cifuentes (soon to depart for Scotland’s Premier League) volleyed a long pass into the path of Vela, who drilled it past STL keeper Roman Burki. The first goal in an eventual 3-0 win made LAFC the fastest team in MLS history to score 350 regular-season goals, needing just 180 games to get there. (D.C. United reached the mark in its 184th game.)
The win also let the league know that the West’s crown would remain in L.A. until someone came and took it.
7. ADVANCING IN VANCOUVER
LAFC had played only four games on artificial turf in the first seven months of the season before playing three of its final six games of 2023 on the plastic stuff. A first-round defeat of Vancouver was on the line when LAFC walked onto the unfamiliar surface inside BC Place on November 5, the Black & Gold having already defeated the Whitecaps at home, 5-2, in Game 1 of their best-of-three series.
As always, a swatch of black and gold flags and banners occupied one corner of the stadium, waving wildly as forward Mario González earned a penalty in front of goal midway through the first half. Bouanga slammed home the ensuing kick, giving LAFC a 1-0 lead that would last the remaining 70 minutes, with Max Crépeau (five saves) stopping a dangerous threat from the home team in the final seconds. The first playoff road victory in LAFC history would be followed three weeks later by a chance at its second.
6. DERBY WIN AT HOME
LAFC’s home match versus the Galaxy on September 16 was a must-win for both clubs. LAFC’s rivals were clinging to the thinnest of playoff hopes, while the Black & Gold – depleted by a schedule that called for 60 percent of their matches this year to be played on two or three days’ rest – had lost three straight games and were seeking momentum headed into the postseason.
In a play reminiscent of the Gareth Bale equalizer that took the roof off BMO Stadium in the 2022 MLS Cup final, a leaping Dénis Bouanga headed a Diego Palacios cross into the Galaxy net to give LAFC a 1-0 lead.
Bouanga’s second goal in the 4-2 victory placed him in a tie atop the MLS Golden Boot standings, with 14. A win over a local rival is always emotional, but the most poignant part of the evening was the return of Max Crepeau to LAFC’s lineup, ten months after the goalkeeper broke his leg making a game-saving tackle in the ’22 MLS Cup final.
5. WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL VS. HOUSTON
It was just another corner kick—LAFC’s fourth of the first half of their Western Conference Final matchup with Houston Dynamo FC on December 2. But it was also a moment of urgency.
The Black & Gold had narrowly missed on two goal chances in the first twelve minutes, and now, in the 44th, it appeared the Dynamo would go into the locker room tied 0-0—a familiar situation for LAFC during a schedule that the Associated Press called “the longest, busiest, [and] most grueling in Major League Soccer history.”
But then Vela floated a perfectly arced ball from the corner into the six-yard box, where Chiellini headed it toward goal. Dynamo keeper Steve Clark made the save but did not secure it, which allowed 32-year-old Ryan Hollingshead to pop it in with his right boot.
LAFC would add a second goal to secure a 2-0 victory and set up an MLS Cup Final date with the Columbus Crew.
4. WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL IN SEATTLE
Defeating Houston at home and winning the Western Conference trophy had been epic, but LAFC’s trip to Seattle one week earlier marked a significant turning point in Club history. The quality of opponent (the two-time MLS champs had the league’s best defense and were unbeaten in their last 19 playoff home games), the time of year (cold, wet November), and the Sounders’ history of eliminating LAFC from the playoffs (twice!) made for a seemingly insurmountable challenge as third-seeded LAFC traveled north to take on the second-seeded Sounders on November 26.
Two weeks had passed since LAFC defeated Vancouver in the first round, so LAFC had every reason to come out rusty. Same for LAFC’s supporters, who would have been forgiven if they’d skipped the trip to frigid Washington state. Instead, LAFC fans showed up in droves, flooding the streets around Lumen Field with black and gold. Their pent-up energy was released in the 30th minute when Timmy Tillman sent a pass out of his own half that reached the feet of a sprinting Bouanga. The Boot winner’s 37th goal of 2023 proved to be all LAFC needed, as goalie Maxime Crépeau batted away several Seattle shots in the second half to secure the 1-0 result and a spot in the Conference Final.
3. CARSON INVASION
LAFC had beaten the Galaxy before, but had never done so in their rival’s territory. That changed on April 16, 2023, when Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson was crammed with Black & Gold supporters who arrived early and made their presence known long after the final whistle. Two Vela goals and a 70th-minute set-piece header by Ryan Hollingshead provided an especially fulfilling 3-2 win, one that was earned behind enemy lines.
2. MONTEREY BAY MAGIC
There was no trophy at stake, and the stadium was the smallest one LAFC has ever played in. LAFC’s U.S. Open Cup Round-of-32 match with Monterey Bay of the United Soccer League (USL) Championship also stands as the only game LAFC played this year that went to two extra 15-minute periods. The game landed in the heart of LAFC’s demanding Champions League schedule, so Cherundolo fielded a starting lineup that consisted of eight teenagers, two players in their 20s, and Eldin Jakupovic, the senior team’s backup goalkeeper—an English Premier League veteran who will turn 40 next year.
This website reported that the performance turned in by LAFC’s young players on May 9 “was at times spotty and disorganized, at other times clever and clinical—and at every moment gritty and resolute.” After a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes of play, plus twelve penalty kicks—including one driven home by Jakupovic—LAFC emerged the victors and danced on the field long after Jakupovic’s final diving save sealed the win.
1. BOUANGA BLOWS UP
Dénis Bouanga mentioned several times during his prolific 2023 season that his success was the result of a combined team effort. Vela, for instance, played in all 34 MLS games for the first time in his career, and his 21 total goal contributions in MLS (9g, 12a) made him one of just ten players with more than 20 in the regular season.
LAFC remained Vela’s team in 2023. But 2023 was Bouanga’s year.
Born 29 years ago on the same French soil where President Roosevelt spoke of the man “in the arena who strives valiantly [and] knows great enthusiasms,” Bouanga embodied the spirit of those words. On the 113th anniversary of Roosevelt’s speech, Bouanga did something that by that point in the 2023 season had become familiar: dribbling through the middle of Nashville’s formidable defense and firing an un-saveable shot into a remote corner of the net.
He would end up with a staggering 52 total goal contributions in 2023, in just 48 games (38 goals, 14 assists). His 38 goals tied the MLS record set by Vela in 2019. Bouanga would likely have broken that record if he hadn’t handed the ball to MLS rookie Mateusz Bogusz in a game against Real Salt Lake in May, allowing the 21-year-old to convert a penalty kick (earned by Bouanga) for his first MLS goal. (If Bouanga, who was perfect from the spot in 2023, had taken that penalty he would probably have ended up with 39 goals and sole possession of the MLS record.) It was an unselfish moment that is worth remembering in this season of giving.
Speaking of remembering, who can forget the five-game stretch in August in which Bouanga had a hand in 12 LAFC goals (six goals and six assists)?
Or his four hat tricks (the first four of his pro career)? His 10 multi-goal games? The Gabonese winger produced a litany of stunning statistics in 2023. Among them: he scored at least two goals in 20 percent of the games he played.
He was named an MLS All-Star, won two Golden Boots (Concacaf Champions Cup and MLS), became a finalist for MLS’ Landon Donovan MVP award, received MLS Player of the Month honors for October, and at season’s end was selected to MLS’ annual Best XI squad.
As if that weren’t enough, Bouanga scored in both of Gabon’s World Cup qualifying victories in November.
In a Major League Soccer season that saw the most decorated footballer in history enter the league, it was a former opponent of Leo Messi’s from France’s Ligue 1 who stole the show.
Here’s to more of the same in 2024.