The Top 33 Moments Of LAFC’s First 33 Games 

The reigning MLS Cup champions began their title defense with a record quantity of matches filled with just as many gold-plated moments

With the return to MLS play upon us (LAFC hosts Colorado Rapids on Wednesday, August 23 at BMO Stadium), we pause to reflect on the team that played more games by mid-July than any other in MLS history. LAFC’s busy schedule in the first half of 2023 had a purpose – a scintillating run to the Concacaf Champions League Final. At one point head coach Steve Cherundolo called his club’s packed calendar “a privilege. It means we’re ambitious and we enjoy winning. Other teams would love to be in our position.” 

In that spirit, in no particular order - here are the top 33 moments of the first 33 games in this unprecedented season.


Giorgio Chiellini – the 38 -year-old Italian legend, Olympic medalist, and two-time Champions League finalist who joined LAFC last summer and ended up hoisting an MLS Cup by winter – scored his first MLS goal and LAFC’s first of the season in LAFC’s inaugural fixture of 2023, against Portland. The goal was as gritty and unpretentious as Chiellini himself, and he celebrated it with a “salute” gesture to honor his former Italy teammate Davide Astori, who had died exactly five years earlier.


That’s “hat trick” in French. Dénis Bouanga began this season as if fired out of a cannon, notching a hat trick against Austin on April 8. His flight path has only ascended since then, as we shall see below … 

31. FIRST TO 300

On a muggy night in Kansas City, LAFC got a breakaway goal from Carlos Vela in stoppage time to pull out a 2-1 win over Sporting KC. Those hard-earned three points made LAFC the fastest club in MLS history to reach the 300-point mark, attaining that plateau in only 174 games. 


On May 13, LAFC was leading Real Salt Lake 2-0 in the 86th minute when Denis Bouanga was fouled on the doorstep of the RSL goal. Instead of taking the penalty kick himself, the Black & Gold’s leading scorer handed the ball to newcomer Mateusz Bogusz. The 21-year-old Polish midfielder calmly rifled it home, tallying the first goal of his LAFC and MLS career. The first man to embrace him? Bouanga.


When LAFC kicked off in Dallas on July 1, it marked the club’s 29th game across all competitions since the beginning of the MLS campaign. No team in league history had played that many matches between its season debut and July 1. (The next-closest team, the 2022 Seattle Sounders, played 25.) “It’s a lot of games,” Cherundolo said after that night’s 2-0 defeat in muggy north Texas, noting the injuries and international conflicts his team was also juggling, “but we still have a competitive roster and field a competitive team every game.”


If you blinked you missed it. But the internet sure didn’t. In the 47th minute against Seattle on June 21, LAFC’s Diego Palacios sent a pass through the ankles of a Sounders defender that was received by Bouanga, who did the same to a second opponent. Two nutmegs in five seconds. Better than a double rainbow.


LAFC was desperate for goals at the time, having scored just seven over the previous six weeks. The drought persisted through 71 minutes against conference leaders St. Louis CITY, until Jose Cifuentes volleyed a long pass into the path of Vela, who drilled it into the top shelf. 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 350 goals in its 184th game.)


Same night, same game. Ten minutes after Vela broke the ice, LAFC’s radio voice, Dave Denholm, had a hunch. Stipe Biuk was entering the St. Louis match in place of Bogusz when Denholm shared his hunch over the air


If there were any doubts that German-born midfielder Timothy Tillman would mesh well with LAFC’s style of play, they were erased 83 minutes into his first MLS start, when he pressed an unsuspecting New England midfielder (sorry, Latif), picked his pocket, and slotted home his first goal in Black & Gold.


A colorful warm-up kit, a stadium filled with diversity and strength. There was even a wedding. Pride Night at LAFC is always a vibe, and this year’s version definitely left its stamp.


Music City is always a difficult place to play, and the night of April 22 was no exception. The home side looked destined for a 1-0 victory until Stipe Biuk intercepted a Nashville pass, dropped it in front of Denis Bouanga, and watched LAFC’s MVP candidate do the rest.


With the Concacaf Champions League final just days away, Steve Cherundolo rested his usual rotation of players and started ten field players whose average age was 20.2. Most were regulars for LAFC2, the Club’s MLS Next Pro team The youngsters went toe-to-toe with Galaxy’s first-teamers throughout a scoreless first half. Two Galaxy goals after intermission eliminated LAFC from the U.S. Open Cup, 2-0, but the night offered proof that LAFC’s next generation of talent is ready for the big stage.


LAFC had endured four straight league games without a goal before it traveled to Kansas City, where a first-half penalty kick put them down 1-nil. A foul in the area by defender Denil Maldonado had precipitated the PK, so it was fitting that when a crossing pass from Bogusz sailed toward the SKC box, Maldonado was the one who rose and headed it into the net, tying the match with the first goal of his LAFC career and helping his club reach 300 points faster than any other in MLS history (see #31 above).


Defender Mamadou Fall (who wears his father’s surname, Mbacke, on his jersey) received a warm welcome this summer upon returning to LAFC from a one-year loan to Spanish club Villareal. As a teenager in 2021 and 2022, Fall had become a fan favorite in LA, scoring five goals in Black & Gold and playing center back with blinding speed and competitive fire. The Senegal native, now 20, returned to the BMO Stadium field on July 8 vs. San Jose, showcasing once again his tremendous potential. 


LAFC’s road tilt in Salt Lake was a relatively pedestrian affair until Carlos Vela nudged a pass toward Denis Bouanga just outside the penalty area. A second later, the ball was bulging the back of the RSL net and Bouanga was celebrating by shooting an imaginary arrow into the chest of former teammate Mahala Opoku. It was a stunning sequence that had become familiar by that point in the season, and would only become more so in the weeks ahead.


In any sport, the defending champion must guard against a decline in performance during the first days of the ensuing season. Any concerns that LAFC would fall to the middle of the pack following its first MLS Cup title were addressed head-on when the Black & Gold throttled New England Revolution 4-0 in its second MLS match of 2023. The value of that victory has only increased in hindsight. The Revolution have only lost three MLS matches since and are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference.


During a Concacaf Champions League journey that would take LAFC to four countries, LAFC visited British Columbia in early April to face the Vancouver Whitecaps, followed six days later by the second leg in Los Angeles. The results of those two games were identical. Two 3-0 victories in which the Black & Gold held a narrow advantage on total shots on goal (11 to 8) but were ruthless in finishing their chances. 


We’ve referenced the June match in Kansas City above— a testament to its standing as a pivotal chapter in LAFC’s 2023 story. The Club was struggling after the Concacaf Finals loss to Leon. Facing an opponent that was unbeaten in its previous four home games, LAFC clawed and scratched its way to what looked like a hard-fought tie … until Aaron Long sent a long volley into the attacking third that Carlos Vela ran onto, settled, and finished, quieting Childrens Mercy Park, securing a victory, and reviving his team’s confidence. 


The real finish line won’t arrive until the MLS Cup final, but when LAFC earned a road point with a 1-1 draw against Minnesota United on July 15, it marked the end of their record-setting run of 33 matches in four-and-a-half months. That’s a combined two full days of soccer. In the 90th minute, a drive from distance by Ryan Hollingshead came just inches from providing a victory, but the 17-day break that followed this match was reward enough.


When LAFC tied Nashville 1-1 on the road on April 22, the club secured its standing as the last unbeaten team in Major League Soccer in 2023. The Black & Gold also set a new club record for best start to a season (5-0-3). Over the past 20 years, LAFC is the only MLS team to go unbeaten through its first seven games in multiple seasons. 


The Nashville match also marked the first LAFC start for homegrown midfielder Erik Dueñas, who has since contributed heavily to the Club’s current second-place standing in the Western Conference. Raised in nearby El Monte, Dueñas joined LAFC – a brand-new club at the time – as an 11-year-old, then progressed determinedly and with his trademark positive energy through its academy and second team.


Moments before the season opener against Portland, the champs received the jewelry that that title carries with it. A packed BMO Stadium applauded playoff heroes John McCarthy, Carlos Vela, and their teammates— including recently retired Gareth Bale – the players striding onto the field to receive their rings as a flowing tifo (depicting Vela hoisting the trophy four months earlier) flapped in the stadium’s North End. From the rafters to the east dropped a vast black banner that said it all: MLS CUP CHAMPIONS.


SKC game again. Steve Cherundolo started five players age 21 or younger, including a front line—Stipe Biuk, Nathan Ordaz, and Mateusz Bogusz – whose average age was 20. Bogusz assisted on the tying goal in the second half.


On the night of March 23, Denis Bouanga was in his home country, Gabon, playing all 90 minutes in his national team’s 1-0 victory over Sudan in the African Cup of Nations qualifying. Immediately afterward, Bouanga flew to Istanbul, where following a three-hour layover he boarded a 7,000-mile flight to Los Angeles, arriving shortly before LAFC’s home match against FC Dallas. Bouanga entered the game in the 65th minute. In the 84th he sent a crossing pass toward the goal that went untouched before settling into the net at the far post for the winning score. Bon voyage, indeed.  


The consensus following LAFC’s 2-1 defeat in León in the first leg of the Champions League final was twofold: FC León means business and LAFC goalkeeper John McCarthy does too. The perennial Liga MX power created chance after chance in McCarthy’s area during their 2-1 victory at Estadio León. Still, the lanky hero of the MLS Cup final stood his ground, parrying away or snatching shots that seemed destined for his net. The five saves he made felt like twenty, and his performance kept his team alive in the two-leg final and would earn him the competition’s Best Goalkeeper award.


A golden sunset, two fierce rivals, a sold-out Rose Bowl. The only thing missing on the Fourth of July, when LAFC and the Galaxy played before an MLS-record 82,110 fans in that venerable old stadium, was a victory for the Black & Gold, as they suffered a hard-fought 2-1 loss to their rivals. 


LAFC’s 2023 roster had only played together once (in their MLS season debut against Portland)  before flying to Central America to begin Concacaf Champions League play against traditionally strong Costa Rican club LD Alajuelense. On a muggy night in Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, LAFC kept Alajuelense goalkeeper Leonel Moreira busy with 25 shots, including 12 on goal. Three of those, from Denis Bouanga, found the net in a 3-0 victory. It was the first of three hat tricks Bounga would record by the end of July—in three different competitions. 


The first leg of LAFC’s Champions League semifinal against Philadelphia Union was scoreless until the 82nd minute when a handball on Kellyn Acosta gave Philly a penalty kick and a late 1-0 lead. Things looked bleak in the first minute of stoppage time, until Acosta sensed a chance at redemption, sprinted at the Union goal, and knocked a pass from Timothy Tillman into the upper corner, tying the game and giving LAFC a crucial road goal that helped the club close the deal on the return leg in LA the following week. 


LAFC had beaten the Galaxy during previous installments of this derby rivalry but had never done so in enemy territory. That changed on April 16, when Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson was crammed with Black & Gold supporters who arrived early and made their presence known all day. The players fed off this energy, providing two Carlos Vela goals and a 70th-minute set-piece header by Ryan Hollingshead to pull out a 3-2 win. 


The setup was simple. To secure its second Champions League final berth in four years, all LAFC needed to do was defeat Philadelphia Union in the semifinal's second leg. On a raucous night at BMO Stadium, Timothy Tillman started the scoring by knocking in a rebound in the 13th minute. Denis Bouanga, the competition’s top goal scorer, put the game out of reach by finishing a Jose Cifuentes delivery in the 90th. The 3-0 victory against one of MLS’s strongest clubs made clear that LAFC had earned its spot in the final of the most prestigious tournament in the region, which encompasses first-division leagues in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.


The final seconds of stoppage time was melting away and it looked like León had secured a 2-0 win at home in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League final. But then Denil Maldonado played a ball out of the back to Vela, who sent it forward to sprinting wingback Sergi Palencia, who glanced up from the right sideline and sent a cross into the danger area. Who was running onto it at the far post? “BOUANGAAAAAAAAA!” came the answer from Fox Sports’ John Strong. After tapping the last kick of the game into León’s goal, Bouanga went on a celebratory sprint down the sideline, showering in the cervezas that were being thrown at him and basking in the hope he had just given his team. 


FINISH HIM! Read the massive tifo that was unfurled inside BMO Stadium prior to the second leg of the CCL final. It was a throwback to the Mortal Kombat video game, and these 180 minutes of football – 90 in León and now 90 in LA – did at times feel like life or death. Trailing 2-1 on aggregate, LAFC needed to outscore León by two goals in order to claim the region’s greatest trophy. The Black & Gold had done it before – somehow fighting back from two goals down to advance past León in the 2020 CCL quarterfinal – and those same “We can do this” vibes were coursing through the heart of Los Angeles on this magical Sunday night in June. Alas, it was not to be. Although León earned the trophy with a 1-0 victory, the energy in LAFC’s stadium on this historic night would not be forgotten by anyone in attendance.  


There was no trophy on the line, and the stadium was the smallest one LAFC has ever played in – by a wide margin. LAFC’s U.S. Open Cup Round of 32 match with Monterey Bay of the United Soccer League’s (USL) Championship also stands as the only game LAFC has 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 consisting 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. What followed remains hard to put into words, even if you were among the 6,000 or so who witnessed it firsthand. This website reported that the performance turned in by LAFC’s young players “was at times spotty and disorganized, at other times clever and clinical—and at every moment gritty and resolute.” After twelve penalty kicks—including one driven home by the old fox Jakupovic—LAFC emerged the victors and danced on the field long after Jakupovic’s final diving save sealed the result.