In a Major League Soccer season that saw the most decorated footballer in history come to North America, it was a former opponent of Leo Messi’s from France’s Ligue 1 who ended up stealing the show.
LAFC forward Dénis Bouanga charged out of the gate in the opening days of MLS’ 2023 season and never tapped the brakes, earning MLS All-Star honors at midyear, and winning two Golden Boots as the top goal scorer in both MLS and Concacaf Champions League.
The French-born Gabon international may not be done yet. Bouanga is a likely candidate to make MLS’ Best XI team, and today he was named one of three finalists for the league’s most prestigious individual honor, the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award.
It has all happened quite suddenly. Bouanga started just six MLS games in 2022 after departing AS St. Etienne of France’s top division and signing with LAFC. His only regular-season goal for his new club came in the season finale in Portland, a last-minute strike that won the Supporters’ Shield for LAFC. He made a much greater impact in the playoffs, playing all 300 minutes of LAFC’s three postseason matches and scoring twice against the Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinal.
Then 2023 happened.
The 16 goals and five assists Bouanga tallied in his first 17 appearances of this calendar year (in MLS and Concacaf Champions League play) came as a surprise to followers of those two competitions, but not to LAFC co-president John Thorrington. “I won't forget the first time our scouts said, ‘John go watch this guy,’” Thorrington told MLS writer Jonathan Sigal in April. “When I got to it, we were all internally convinced this is the guy because we had the thought and conviction that we would see what we are seeing now.”
Before he arrived in Los Angeles, Bouanga, 28, had never scored a hat trick in the more than 200 games he’d played across France’s top two divisions, or in several African Cup of Nations tournaments. He collected his first in his second game of 2023 (a CCL match in Costa Rica versus Alajuelense) and has added three more hat tricks since— two in MLS play and one in a Leagues Cup match against FC Juárez. (The nine hat tricks scored by LAFC players since 2018 are the most by any MLS team since the Black & Gold joined the league that year.)
“The best thing he does is he’s direct,” Apple TV broadcaster and former USMNT forward Taylor Twellman told LAFC commentator Max Bretos. “There is no b.s. around his game … Everything he does is 100 miles an hour, directly to the defender, directly to the goal, and that’s understated.
“Too often we get caught up – because of social media – in the stepovers, the clicks, the tricks and all that,” Twellman added. “The most effective goal scorers in the world are the ones that literally go right at you. They stomp on your throat, they bury the ball, they turn around, they go back to midfield and say, ‘I’m gonna do it again.’ That’s what I see with Dénis Bouanga.”
The numbers make that point even more clearly. Bouanga’s 145 progressive carries (dribbling runs that move the ball toward the opponents’ goal line in the attacking half) rank second among all MLS players. His 87 carries into the penalty area were tops in the league by a wide margin. (The next closest player had 56.)
Bouanga’s 227 touches in the opposing penalty box rank first in MLS. He was second in the league in shots on target (54), tied for first in non-penalty goals (17), and he converted all three of the penalty kicks he attempted. He would have taken a fourth, but after drawing a foul near the goal against Real Salt Lake in May, Bouanga handed the ball to 21-year-old teammate Mateusz Bogusz to allow Bogusz to score his first career MLS goal.
Aside from generosity and footballing skill, Bouanga’s greatest asset maybe his endless supply of energy. LAFC has played an unprecedented 48 games so far in 2023, more than any MLS team in history. There have been comments both internal and external about the burden that this schedule has placed on players. If Bouanga had his way he’d play three full games every week.
“He’s a person who loves what he does,” says LAFC defender Sergi Palencia, who played with Bouanga at St. Etienne before joining him this year in LA. “He loves to play, loves to compete. He’ll play 90 minutes on Saturday and on Sunday he’ll be annoyed because he’s not training.”
“His impact has been not just scoring,” according to defender Giorgio Chiellini, “but running hard for 90 minutes, for the whole season.”
Others have taken notice. The five combined goals Bouanga scored against Minnesota and Austin in early October “reaffirmed his candidacy as MLS MVP,” said Spanish football publication AS.com. MLS National Writer Chares Boehm called Bouanga a “_multi-million-dollar player [with] pace, grace and confidence in abundance.” Brazilian journalist Arthur Fernandes wrote that Bounga’s explosive 2023 has been “an undeniable testament to his significance in the soccer landscape not only in the United States but on a global scale.”
Regarding Bouanga’s impact on his club, Josh Gross of the Los Angeles Daily News pointed out recently that “over the 26 games he’s made a goal contribution [a goal or assist], LAFC stands 16-5-5. The 17 times he did not, LAFC is 3-8-6.” When he helped LAFC score in MLS league play, “they’re 9-2-4.”
Those numbers include LAFC’s regular-season finale in Vancouver, when in the 34th minute Bouanga received a pass near the top of the opponents’ 18-yard box only to find himself surrounded by four Whitecaps. He scored anyway, helping his club secure a 1-1 draw that sealed a top-three finish for LAFC in the Western Conference, and home-field advantage in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
“This is the player we scouted in Europe,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said after the game. “Denis has made an impact in MLS … [and] we’re hoping for more in the most important part of the season.”