MIAMI (AFP) – When Denis Bouanga joined Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Football Club in August there was little of the fanfare that has greeted other international player signings in the Californian city.
The 27-year-old may have been well known in French football after scoring 26 goals in 97 appearances for Saint Etienne and noted in Africa for his displays for Gabon but was not the kind of marquee signing Los Angeles’ two clubs tend to aim for.
In a city where David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Steven Gerrard raised the profile of the game with Los Angeles’ other team, the Galaxy, Bouanga’s move from a Ligue 2 club hardly moved the dial.
Those players were given the full American PR treatment with on-field presentations and their images prominent in advertising and promotions.
Bouanga, rather, was the kind of signing that had the club’s fans searching Wikipedia for details and YouTube for some career highlights.
On Thursday though, the Le Mans-born winger provided his own arrival announcement with a brilliant performance including two goals and assist in a 3-2 playoff victory over the Galaxy.
The Banc of California Stadium went wild after Cristian Arango’s stoppage time winner, created by Bouanga’s volley from a corner that could only be parried out by Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond.
Twice Bouanga had put LAFC in the lead only for the Galaxy to level.
His goals – his first effort was an expertly taken finish in the box after being found by Carlos Vela and his second a tap-in after a perfectly timed run at the back post – showcased his ability.
But Bouanga had caused the Galaxy problems all night with his speed and directness on the left, leaving his coach Steve Cherundolo purring.
“Denis did what he has shown from day one here in LA but (this time) he finished plays. He is a threat – a threat in one-on-one, a threat in set pieces, in combination plays,” said the former United States (US) international, who spent his entire playing career in Germany with Hannover 96.
“He’s physically and mentally a monster. I personally, as a right back, would not like to play against him – and I probably would not have looked very good against him, either.”
The win puts LAFC into the Western Conference final, one win away from hosting the final of MLS Cup and a chance to win their first MLS championship in front of their own fans.
The club, which entered MLS in 2018, has home field advantage in the playoffs after winning the Supporters’ Shield as the team with the best regular season record.
That prize was secured by a 1-0 win at Portland in the penultimate game of the regular season, which came thanks to a superb solo goal from Bouanga.
As rewarding as that first MLS goal was for the former Lorient and Nimes winger, delivering two crucial efforts in front of a packed home crowd on national television, was next level.
“It was unbelievable. Even with my experiences in other stadiums, it was fantastic. Our supporters out there, it starts from minute one until the end and it really pushes the group,” he said.
While there may not have been much fanfare, LAFC valued Bouanga enough to sign him under the “Designated Player” system – dubbed the “Beckham Rule” – which allows for a higher salary for elite players, outside of the team salary cap.
“I was welcomed really well at the club, at first by the staff and then the players, that made me feel really comfortable, my personal abilities just add to the collective group, it has glued together really well,” said the winger.
Bouanga’s performance also give Cherundolo a potential selection headache.
Just a couple of months earlier, LAFC had grabbed global headlines by securing former Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur winger Gareth Bale on a 12 month deal.
Bale, who would normally play in Bouanga’s slot on the left flank, has yet to hit his stride and missed Thursday’s derby due to a left leg injury.
But he is expected back in training and should be available for the conference final against the winners of today’s all-Texas clash between Austin and Dallas.
Bale or not, Bouanga will surely keep his spot alongside Arango and Mexican Carlos Vela in an impressive attack.
US international midfielder Kellyn Acosta has no doubt of what Bouanga brings to the team.
“From my standpoint, it is a case of give the ball to Denis and let him score,” he said. “He is a special player. Big players show up in big moments.”