Denis Bouanga arrived in Los Angeles last August slightly overlooked amongst some of the more high profile additions that joined LAFC in the 2022 summer transfer window. International footballing legends like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini got most of the attention – but it was Bouanga who arrived as a Designated Player and was expected to make an immediate impact, starting in six of the Black & Gold’s final seven regular season games.
Bouanga only scored one goal in the 2022 regular season – but it was a big one, netting the game-winning and Supporters’ Shield clinching goal in Portland Oct. 2 and then scoring two goals in a win over the Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinals. He played every minute of LAFC’s playoff run to the MLS Cup, and as the 2023 preseason has moved forward, Bouanga has started right where he left off.
The Le Mans, France native scored three of LAFC’s four goals last week in two matches at the Coachella Valley Invitational, finding the back of the net two times vs. Toronto on Feb. 11 in a 2-1 win and scoring once on Feb. 6.
“He’s in the prime of his career,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said about the 28-year-old Gabon international. “Physically he is a monster. He is tactically disciplined. He is a very hard worker and has been training very well on top of it all.”
LAFC spotted Bouanga after his successful performance with Saint-Etienne in the French First Division, and determined that his profile made him the right person to be the next Designated Player in LAFC history.
“He is perfect for our game model,” Cherundolo said. “That is why we identified him and we are very, very happy. He is a great guy and he has some great skill to go with it.”
FILLING THE SCORING VOID
Cristian “Chicho” Arango led LAFC with 16 goals last season, and since joining the Black & Gold in Aug. 2021, the forward led the way with 30 goals in 50 regular season games. Arango is gone for the 2023 season, having been transferred to Liga MX Champion Pachuca on Feb. 1, creating an opportunity for
Denis Bouanga and others to step up to take on the scoring load.
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo is looking to his remaining forwards like Bouanga and Carlos Vela to find the back of the net more in the absence of Arango.
“I think Denis and Carlos are both personally looking to have big years,” Cherundolo said. “Obviously Mahala, we need him to take the next step in his career and we saw some of that [against Toronto], he came on and showed what he can do.”
In addition to the 21-year-old Mahala, who is expected to score, newly signed attacker Stipe Biuk has also been dangerous throughout the preseason matches.
“There are plenty of guys out there who can score goals for us,” Cherundolo said. “It is always a team effort, but those names in particular we are looking for putting up big numbers.”
In their two games in Coachella, Cherundolo was happy with the overall performance – but did mention after both games that he wanted to see his team be more clinical in front of the opponents net.
“There is still work to do,” Cherundolo said. “I think in the final third and finishing off our chances and opportunities – we definitely need some work there.”
The newest member of the Black & Gold, Timothy Tillman made his debut on Feb. 11 vs. Toronto, coming on as a substitute after officially signing with the team just the day before.
The former Bayern Munich youth product arrived in California after playing previously with German Bundesliga 2 club Greuther Fürth. Cherundolo, who spent his 12-year professional career playing for Hannover 96 in the Bundesliga and also coached in numerous levels of German football before joining LAFC, remembered seeing Tillman begin his development in Germany.
“Timothy is a great signing for us,” Cherundolo said. “He is a player that I have known for a few years in Germany. He understands the game pretty well obviously, he is coming from a very good tactical background, but he also has the physical capabilities to help us.”
Tillman, 24, is a dual German-American citizen and has represented Germany at the Youth National Team level.
BONDING IN THE DESERT
For the second straight season, LAFC spent a week training and playing in the desert near Palm Springs. The practice sessions were solid and the game experience against top MLS teams was of course helpful for the continued preparation for a busy 2023 season, but perhaps the most valuable thing the team gets out of the trip is time together.
“We’ve been out here before,” LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead said. “It is always a big part of the preseason to get the group away from the house and away from the families for a little bit so we can get out here and focus on football and focus on building a good foundation as a group. We’re excited to do that again and this is a good space to do that and a good place to get some good games.”
Cherundolo credited the trip to Palm Springs last season as helping bring together a championship team – and is hopeful this group will come together in the same way.
“We don’t come out here for the weather,” Cherundolo said. “We are here for the competition and for the team bonding. It was a great five days with the group last year – it was very important for our team moving forward and I feel the same about these five days that we’ve had.”
LAFC veteran midfielder Ilie Sanchez agrees that the intensive five day stretch together will help build team chemistry on a roster that has several new players to integrate.
“I think that every time we have a week together where we spend it 24-7 with each other, it helps build those relationships,” Sanchez said. “We get to know the new players and they get to know how the group functions. It is very positive to come out here.”