Denis Bouanga doesn’t need a lot of time to produce a magical moment.
In March, after playing 90 minutes for the Gabon national team in a home game against Sudan, Bouanga boarded a flight for Turkey, waited three hours on a layover, then hopped on a 13-hour flight to Los Angeles airport. He stepped off the plane and went straight from there to BMO Stadium, where LAFC was preparing to play FC Dallas. He arrived less than an hour before kickoff, and came on as a sub in the 65th minutes.
Then the 28-year-old forward scored the winner.
— Leagues Cup (@LeaguesCup) March 26, 2023
Sure, Bouanga admitted that his goal “was a cross” after the match. But let’s cut this year’s MLS Golden Boot winner some slack. If that’s the kind of impact he has while jet-lagged, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture Bouanga’s ability when he’s fully rested. Just look at his body of work in the league so far.
After signing for LAFC in August of 2022 from Saint-Etienne in France, we got a glimpse of Bouanga’s skill on the club’s march to MLS Cup. He started, played 120 minutes and scored his penalty kick in LAFC’s wild shootout win over the Philadelphia Union. Across all competitions this year, Bouanga has amassed 36 goals and 15 assists, including three goals in two games so far in these MLS playoffs.
Here’s what makes LAFC’s biggest star so special.
A constant goal threat
When we’re talking about a Golden Boot winner, it only makes sense to start with the goals.
As a veteran with more than 10,000 minutes in Ligue 1 and now more than 3,000 in MLS, Bouanga has a ton of goalscoring tools in his bag. Most importantly, he has the two essentials that make any great goalscorer: He can create his own shot and he can move off the ball, find space, and latch onto a teammate’s final pass. Bouanga’s ability to create and receive means that opposing defenders can’t get distracted whether he’s on or off the ball.
Bouanga, who mostly plays on the left wing for Steve Cherundolo with the occasional foray into the other two forward positions in LAFC’s 4-3-3, loves to cut inside onto his dominant right foot, though his coaches insist he’s pretty good with his left, too.
“What really surprised us is how great of a shooter he is,” Ante Razov, LAFC assistant coach, told The Athletic. “He’s fantastic, once he gets in his spots, at putting the ball on target, and he hits a very heavy ball with his right foot and left. Before signing him, we could see the right foot in the scouting analysis, not a lot of the left, but he can pound the ball with both feet, and he gets them on target. That part is a little bit of a surprise. So when he’s coming at pace, with the ability to change directions, he can smack a ball and place it pretty well.”
His close control and fluidity on the ball allows Bouanga to unbalance defenders and create shooting windows. On this play from LAFC’s opening playoff win over Vancouver, you can see Bouanga feint towards the endline as he moves inside and into the box. That is just enough to freeze Whitecaps center back Ranko Veselinović, creating space to finish.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 29, 2023
Bouanga loves playing the inverted winger card — so much so that he scored another rocket cutting in from left to right in that same game against Vancouver. But even if he wasn’t quite so dangerous on the ball, Bouanga could still make a living with his off-ball movement inside the box. His 0.50 xG per 96 minutes was seventh among players with at least 1,000 minutes in the MLS regular season, indicating Bouanga is no stranger to finding valuable space in the attack.
Soccer players, as it turns out, are creatures of habit, and there’s one off-ball run that Bouanga goes to more than virtually any other: a sprint to the far side of the box. When LAFC advances the ball down their right side, Bouanga often takes advantage of the space just outside of the opposing right back. With the backline’s attention elsewhere, Bouanga can motor to the weak side and latch onto the end of a pass coming from the right wing.
Here’s what that run looks like in practice:
The tape has been out on Bouanga’s off-ball movement all season. He scored a massive goal in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final earlier this year on the exact same run detailed up above:
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 1, 2023
As Vancouver experienced firsthand in their first-round series, Bouanga can dance past defenders in the blink of an eye. He completed 3.09 successful take-ons per 90 minutes in the regular season, which is good for the 95th percentile among wingers and attacking midfielders in MLS, per FBref. Bouanga is a high-volume dribbler, only ranking in the 45th percentile for efficiency in those take-ons.
But even with his “dribble first, ask questions later” approach, Bouanga adds a huge amount of value with his touches. According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, which measures the value of a player’s on-ball contributions, only two MLS players added more value with their dribbling than Bouanga this year: LA Galaxy’s Riqui Puig and Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada.
How’s that for some good company?
Bouanga is a powerful dribbler who uses his strength to push past defenders. He also exhibits excellent balance — to keep control of his body while staying in a relatively upright stance — and patience — to draw the defender in with quick touches and a slight pause before beating them.
“We play a lot of small-sided in training, but if it’s full field, I give him 30 yards of space and let him take the ball down, and I’m just like, ‘You’re not running past me’,” LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead told The Athletic. An outside back that faces Bouanga constantly in training, Hollingshead knows perhaps better than anyone else in MLS how hard Bouanga can be to defend against as a dribbler.
“The biggest problem for me guarding him is that he can go both ways,” Hollingshead said. “Usually, a guy has his go-to move where he feels comfortable, so you wait, knowing what he’s going to do, and then step the last minute into the space he’s trying to get to. If you do that with Denis, he cuts and goes the other way. And he’s so quick with his feet that he’s open to having so many options. He almost wants you to make the move. And if you make a move as a defender, you’ve made his decision. It’s so hard as a defender to slow that down. So it’s a lot of delay, giving him space and trying to make them pass to somebody else.”
With 5.16 progressive carries per 90 minutes, according to FBref, Bouanga finished the regular season in the 96th percentile among his positional peers. He’s a near-constant danger moving forward in attacking transition, which is hugely valuable for LAFC, given how much they rely on that phase under Cherundolo.
The clip below from a recent game against Minnesota United features some of Bouanga’s powerful dribbling. Out on the right wing, Bouanga receives the ball and sizes up defender Ethan Bristow. As soon as Bristow over-commits with a big step, Bouanga forces his way past him, breaks into the box, and looks for a penalty (that never comes).
— _ (@21LBRB) November 1, 2023
Bouanga, as MLS defenders have quickly come to realize, is a hard man to stop.
Gravity on the ball
Despite Bouanga’s penchant for dribbling, he’s also proven to be a sneaky-good playmaker for LAFC this season. He finished the regular season 14th among MLS regulars in xA per 96 minutes with 0.25, according to ASA.
Bouanga isn’t a constant through ball-threader like Lucho Acosta or Almada — though he still pulled off a handful of lovely ones this year. Instead, some of his best passing moments come from cutbacks or low crosses from inside the box for an onrushing teammate.
— _ (@21LBRB) November 1, 2023
Those key passes are great, but they don’t get at the entirety of Bouanga’s playmaking value. Because defenders know how dangerous he is on the ball, they’re naturally drawn into Bouanga’s gravity. He’ll use the fact that defenders are terrified of his ability to shoot or to dribble by them to draw them in. Then, just as those defenders start to close him down, Bouanga will play a pass to a teammate who’s moved into the open space he created by simply being on the ball in the first place.
“One thing we have tried to improve in his game is finding a pass when he’s on the move and dribbling inside,” Razov said. “It’s a part of his game that we need to continue to work on. I wouldn’t say it’s the best part of his game because he has that ability to create shots for himself, but looking for others when he’s on the move is the part we want to improve with him, and we constantly push him on this. With the uncanny ability to go left or right at any given moment, with his ability to shoot with both feet, completely unbalances defenses. Improving with his passing and his ability to set up his teammates opens even more doors because if you leave Carlos Vela open to shoot, it’s probably going to be a goal.”
It’s a vicious cycle for defenders — If I don’t step forward, Bouanga will stride forward into an even more dangerous part of the field. But if I do step forward, he’ll pass around me. But a beautiful one for Bouanga and LAFC.
By constantly putting opponents in impossible situations, Bouanga forces defensive mistakes and creates plenty of simple, yet effective, attacking moments. Here’s just one example from a recent game against Austin FC. As Bouanga receives the ball wide on the right side, two Austin players start to close him down. Bouanga recognizes that because he’s suddenly being double-teamed, teammate Timothy Tillman is now open a few yards upfield. One little slipped pass later, and LAFC is running at a retreating backline.
— _ (@21LBRB) November 1, 2023
LAFC has broken defenses for years on the back of very similar situations with the ball on Carlos Vela’s left foot. Now it’s Bouanga’s right that’s shining in the spotlight – and make no mistake, he’s taken the mantle from Vela and is now LAFC’s biggest star.
With his gravity, powerful dribbling and diverse goalscoring, Bouanga is fully capable of leading his team to another MLS Cup.
(Photo: Christopher Morris – Corbis/Getty Images)