Apparently, all LAFC needed to break out of its scoring slump was to allow an early goal to Minnesota, because after the Loons struck four minutes into their October 4 date with LAFC, the Black & Gold outscored them, and Austin after them, by a combined 9-2 over the next 174 minutes.
With its fifth playoff berth in six seasons now secured, LAFC’s finishing difficulties over the last month can now fade into memory. Not that head coach Steve Cherundolo was ever worried.
“It’s only a matter of time before it starts clicking again,” a stoic Cherundolo said after LAFC’s 2-0 loss in Portland on September 9.
“I’m not concerned,” Cherundolo said following three consecutive goal-free performances against St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Tigres. “There’s nothing we’re doing wrong.”
Before the Real Salt Lake match on October 1: “I’m not concerned. Goals will fall.”
After RSL beat LAFC, 1-0: “It’s just a phase.”
That phase ended abruptly, less than two minutes after Minnesota’s breakthrough goal when Dénis Bouanga rifled one in from 15 yards out to tie the score at one. By the time the final whistle sounded in Austin three days later, there was a new leader in the MLS Golden Boot race and LAFC had leaped to second place in the West, holding a familiar momentum headed into the two-week break preceding its season finale in Vancouver on October 21.
The chaos of the Western Conference playoff race has gained clarity.
If LAFC defeats the Vancouver Whitecaps, it will secure the second seed in the West and home-field advantage in its first-round, best-of-three playoff series. Victory at BC Place would also mean that LAFC will play at home in the conference semifinal if the club advances past the first round.
A draw or a loss in Vancouver, however, could erase LAFC’s home-field edge. So there is work to be done. LAFC will prepare for Vancouver without five players who have joined their respective national teams, including two regular starters (Maxime Crepeau of Canada and Cristian Olivera of Uruguay), and heavy contributors Stipe Biuk (Croatia) and Denil Maldonado (Honduras).
Yes, there is uncertainty ahead, but based on recent experience – and the words of the club’s manager – there’s no need to panic.
Dénis Mange (Dénis Is Eating)
With five goals in his last two matches, Dénis Bouanga’s breakout season in MLS has morphed into a potential MLS Golden Boot trophy (to go with his CONCACAF Champions League Golden Boot), and possible MVP hardware as well.
The French-born winger’s 19 goals in MLS play are three more than Cincinnati’s Luciano Acosta, with one game left for each. If Bouanga wins the Golden Boot, he would be the third LAFC player to do so, joining Carlos Vela (2019) and Diego Rossi (2020). The feat would also make LAFC the third team in MLS history with three or more Golden Boot winners, and the only club to accomplish the trifecta in a five-year span (2019-23).
Across all competitions, Bouanga’s 32 goals and 15 assists mean that he has helped create a goal every 75 minutes he has played in 2023. It’s eye-popping stuff. And if it weren’t for Josef Martinez’s scintillating 2018 season and the even more outrageous numbers produced by Bouanga’s current teammate in 2019, Bouanga’s goal production this year would be unprecedented in MLS history.
CCL – Concacaf Champions League
LC – Leagues Cup
OC – Open Cup
Over this long, trying season, one of LAFC’s constants has been its defense.
With one MLS game remaining, LAFC has allowed the third-fewest shots among all MLS teams (122, tied with Houston). The club’s 1.09 expected-goals-against average ranks sixth in the league (third in the Western Conference). And the Black & Gold defense has been even stingier lately when the club has needed it to keep games close. LAFC’s most recent outings in MLS look like this:
Shots On Goal
Real Salt Lake
Conceding 15 shots on target over six games is rare air. (And this doesn’t include the Campeones Cup shutout against Tigres that was decided by penalty kicks.)
LAFC’s attack has created scoring chances all season. (LAFC ranks second in MLS in expected goals — which supports Cherundolo’s belief that it was only a matter of time before his side started hitting the net again.) More impressive, though, is that LAFC is first in MLS in expected goals difference (the gap between expected goals and expected goals allowed) — and by a wide margin.
It’s the kind of play that brought the MLS Cup to LA in 2022, and it’s what has returned the club to the tournament that will decide the 2023 MLS champion as well.
LAFC returns to action on Decision Day, Saturday, October 21, as it closes out the 2023 regular season against the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place. The match will kick off at 6:00 p.m. PT and will be broadcast on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, 710 AM ESPN Los Angeles and 980 AM La Mera Mera.