Something had to give Saturday night. LAFC had played two MLS matches this year against its Galaxy neighbors, each club winning once, each scoring four total goals.
Where the Western Conference standings are concerned, there was not a higher-stakes fixture on Matchday 32 than the Southern California Derby, whose 21st installment offered three points that both clubs needed—LAFC to position itself for a push toward playoff home-field advantage, Galaxy to enter the playoff picture at all.
LAFC prevailed in convincing fashion, 4-2, in a game that the winner and loser, at season’s end, will likely look back on as a turning point.
DENIS BOUANGA IS AN MVP FRONTRUNNER
LAFC created a plethora of chances in the opening minutes but finished none of them. The Black & Gold’s home fans never wavered in their support, but an objective onlooker might have wondered if this would be a fourth straight frustrating match for LAFC’s attack.
Then – in a play reminiscent of the Gareth Bale equalizer that took the roof off BMO Stadium in the 2022 MLS Cup final ten months ago – a leaping Denis Bouanga headed a Diego Palacios cross into the Galaxy net. The noise that surged forth from the partisan crowd of 22,132 sounded like a catharsis.
The victory placed LAFC at 17W-1L-3D on the season in games in which it scores first. Individually for Bouanga, the goal broke a scoreless drought in MLS play that dates back to July 8, when he scored his 12th league goal of 2023. Bouanga’s second goal Saturday night, in the 75th minute, placed him in a tie atop the MLS Golden Boot standings, with 14. The Gabon international has now scored an eye-popping 27 goals in all competitions in 2023. He has 38 total goal contributions this year (27 goals, 11 assists) – eight more than any other MLS player (Hany Mukhtar, 30).
*CCL – Concacaf Champions League
*LC – Leagues Cup
*OC – Open Cup
He doesn’t need the ball to make the scoreboard change. As striker Mario González drove up the center of the pitch during the build-up that preceded LAFC’s fourth goal, Bouanga, on the left wing, sprinted wide, drawing Galaxy defender Kelvin Leerdam away from the action and giving González and Timothy Tillman (who was running full-tilt down the right channel) a two-v-one that Tillman crisply finished. It was yet another moment in which Bouanga, who joined LAFC just 13 months ago, strengthened his case as a favorite for this season’s Landon Donovan MVP award.
CRISTIAN OLIVERA MEANS BUSINESS
After the game, Bouanga was quick to praise the 21-year-old who started opposite him on LAFC’s right wing. Cristian Olivera gave the Galaxy problems during the entirety of his 69-minute shift, sprinting back to pressure opposing attackers, then racing through the midfield on 60-yard runs that placed him on the end of vertical attacking passes. The right flank essentially became Olivera Street (the spelling only slightly different from the historic thoroughfare in downtown L.A.).
If the league didn’t know about Olivera before last night’s prime-time Apple TV broadcast, it does now.
“Like me, he likes to play deep,” Bouanga said of the young Uruguayan. “He likes to play with the ball. It’s easy to play with a player like him. He knows how to dribble. It’s easy for us to understand each other on the field.”
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo used the words, “energy, verticality, deep threat” to sum up Olivera’s first MLS start. With a gifted passer like Carlos Vela in the center of the pitch, “Cristian was dangerous,” Cherundolo continued. “He gave us an added element to our game.”
BIG NIGHT FOR THE BACKS
LAFC responded to the Galaxy’s 25th-minute goal, which tied the game 1-1, with a strike from distance off the left foot of Ryan Hollingshead, whose nine goals over the past two seasons are the most by an MLS defender during that span.
But Hollingshead doesn’t just score. On Saturday night he chased down and dispossessed Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig on several occasions— part of a team effort to bother the visiting playmaker and stifle Galaxy chances before they could take shape. Meanwhile, LAFC’s other fullback, the indispensable Diego Palacios, was contributing his usual understated brilliance.
All Palacios does, it seems, is stop attacks and send dangerous crosses. The 24-year-old ranks fourth among all MLS players in tackles won (44), and fourth in interceptions (46). Palacios is third on the club in MLS minutes played among the team’s non-goalies. (Midfielder Ilie Sánchez and Bouanga are 1-2.) At one point this summer, during LAFC’s run to the Champions League final, Palacios led the club in minutes played in all competitions by a wide margin. By August he had already logged more minutes than he had in all of 2022.
Palacios’ reputation as one of MLS’ most dynamic and durable left backs, if not its best, only grows.
If Saturday evening had a blemish, it was the two goals LAFC conceded, both of which were labeled “soft” by Cherundolo and Hollingshead during postgame interviews.
An opponent scoring on its only two shots on target felt familiar to LAFC supporters. The Club’s few defensive errors this season have seemingly all been punished. But the return of MLS Cup hero Maxime Crépeau to the starting eleven outshone any negatives.
Crépeau broke his leg almost eleven months ago on a play that made LAFC’s MLS Cup final victory over Philadelphia – and LAFC’s first league championship – possible. The battle Crépeau has waged since his injury has been fought mostly in private, as the humble Canadian rehabbed – patiently, relentlessly – so he could return to the game he loves. “It was a long road,” Crépeau said after the win. “Lots of ups and downs over these ten months-ish, 300 days-ish. Quite a ride. But physically and mentally I felt really good. It was great to be out there with my teammates and compete.”
His teammates allowed only those two shots, providing Crépeau with an ideal setting for his return. He didn’t need to spend 90 minutes diving all over his penalty area. Crépeau managed the Galaxy game with his feet and with his voice. And now the fanfare of his homecoming is behind him. “I’m someone who always looks forward,” he said. “So what’s next? For us, what’s next is this road trip. (LAFC plays in St. Louis on Sept. 20 and Philadelphia on Sept. 23.) We will have to focus to bring points back.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
In St. Louis CITY SC and Philadelphia Union, LAFC will face two teams that are in third and fifth place, respectively, in the MLS Supporters Shield standings. But they will do so with a boost in confidence that only a rivalry victory can provide. (Saturday night’s 4-2 result, by the way, was LAFC’s 42nd home win by more than one goal since the club arrived in MLS in 2018. That’s more multi-goal victories than any other team during that time.)
“It feels really good,” Bouanga said in his native French. “It gives the team a good push. It was a derby so it was important for us to win.” LAFC will head to St. Louis “with a good spirit,” he added, “and we will play that game like a final.”
Asked to display his fluency in English, which he has been working on with impressive results since arriving in L.A. last year, Bouanga smiled and said in his adopted tongue, “I am very happy to score.” He rose from the microphone, embraced his two children, and hinted that he and his club are just getting started:
“To be continued.”