March 2, 2024

There was a lot of history on the line in Sunday’s MLS Western Conference semifinal at Lumen Field.

For the Seattle Sounders, who hadn’t lost a playoff game at home in a decade, another win would be their 20th straight in the postseason, breaking the league record. For LAFC, the reigning MLS champion, a victory would keep alive its hope of becoming the first MLS team to win consecutive titles in 11 seasons.

But at the end of the night, the streak that mattered most belonged to Denis Bouanga, whose goal in the 30th minute gave him a score in eight straight games and proved the difference in LAFC’s 1-0 victory, one that sent the team on to the conference final with the Houston Dynamo on Saturday at BMO Stadium.

The win was LAFC’s first in Seattle since the franchise’s inaugural game in 2018, another one-goal win built around a first-half goal and a stellar performance in goal.

“It felt a lot like 2018,” general manager John Thorrington said. “We score early, we absorb a lot of their pressure and our goalkeeper played superbly.”

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said that wasn’t exactly how he drew it up.

“I’m not sure if it was the plan for the entire 90 minutes,” he said. “But once you do get a lead, that’s what it kind of can turn into. We got the goal, got a lead. And you’re always going to have to absorb pressure here in Seattle against an excellent team.

“Not sure many teams have won here in the playoffs.”

They haven’t. But then this game was different with Seattle’s often-brutal late-fall weather — one of the team’s biggest home-field advantages — not a factor. The game kicked off in 41-degree temperatures under clear skies and the Sounders were even hotter at the start, forcing LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau into two splendid saves in the opening four minutes.

The first was a sprawling stop of Joshua Atencio’s left-footed shot from just outside the box in the third minute, then seconds later he stuck up a hand to bat away a right-footed chip from Jordan Morris, who was alone inside the LAFC penalty area with defender Giorgio Chiellini in pursuit.

That proved to be an early turning point.

“And soon as Max got a hand on that, I was like, ‘It’s over. We just won this game,’ ” defender Ryan Hollingshead said. “There’s just moments like that in a game where it’s hard to come back from and they really didn’t have another good solid chance until [15] minutes left in the game.”

On one of those late shots, LAFC midfielder Timothy Tillman, standing in front of an open net, cleared a Yeimar shot off the line and then later Crepeau lifted an Alex Roldan shot from distance over the bar. Crepeau deflected another shot, this one from Albert Ruznak, off the crossbar in stoppage time, one of a season-high seven saves.

But while Seattle was pushing forward all night, LAFC waited for a transition moment — one that came late in the first half, though it developed innocently enough with Hollingshead collecting a loose ball and sending it to Tillman just outside his own penalty area. He then fed Bouanga near the center circle and the MLS scoring leader took it from there, outrunning the defense down the left wing and into the 18-yard box before ending the fast break by beating Sounders keeper Stefan Frei cleanly with a right-footed shot into the far corner.

“That’s playoffs, man,” Hollingshead said. “You get one chance or two chances, you’ve got to capitalize. And we did. Denis, once it’s at his feet, I’ll put my mortgage on him scoring that.”

It was Bouanga’s 12th goal in the eight-game scoring streak for LAFC and Gabon, his national team, and his 37th goal in 46 games with LAFC in 2023, one off Carlos Vela’s MLS record for a calendar year.

LAFC had lost only four of the previous 23 games in which Bouanga had scored in all competition and was unbeaten in 17 MLS games in which it scored first.

Neither of those trends would be reversed Sunday.

Asked if this goal, the only one in an elimination game, was his most important for the club, Bouanga broke into a smile.

“Qui,” he answered in French. “I said I came to L.A. to break some records, to win the MLS like we did last year. And I’m really hoping that we can do that back to back.”

Under those circumstances, Vela, the LAFC captain, said he’d be happy to lose his record.

“The most important thing is to win the championship,” he said. “So if he has to score 10 goals to give us the trophy, it’s perfect.”

Seattle controlled the first half, holding the ball for nearly 30 of the opening 45 minutes and putting three times as many shots on goal. And the Sounders’ dominance only grew in the second half. But LAFC led the only place that mattered: the scoreboard.

Referee Ted Unkel mostly kept his cards in his pocket and as a result the game turned physical at times — and appeared ready to careen out of control at others, especially when Unkel allowed to play to continue after Chiellini appeared to foul Seattle’s Cristian Roldan on the edge of the penalty area in the 60th minute, drawing vigorous protests from the Sounders.

Now LAFC comes home for a date with Houston, which has lost only once since beating Lionel Messi and Inter Miami in the U.S. Open Cup final in September. The Dynamo also beat LAFC twice this season.

“From their perspective, they will probably say they match up very well against us,” Cherundolo said. “[It’s] a team we certainly, by no means, will take lightly and underestimate and a team we’re ready for.”

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