April 16, 2024

Denis Bouanga was one of the last players to leave the field Sunday and when he finally got to LAFC’s locker room, he found teammate Maxime Crepeau waiting to wrap him in a warm bear hug.

The two men have become close over the last year, with the Paris-born Bouanga often relying on Crepeau, a French-speaking Canadian, to translate for him. The rare journey they shared this season speaks for itself.

When LAFC general manager John Thorrington signed Bouanga, 29, in August 2022, he was playing for Saint-Etienne, a second-division side in France for which he had scored as many as 10 goals only once. With the lone score in LAFC’s 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Western Conference semifinal Sunday, Bouanga has 37 goals for his club in 2023; only four players in the world — among them Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe — have done better. And his 20 goals in the regular season led MLS and made him a finalist for the league’s MVP award.

Crepeau, meanwhile, started this season on crutches after breaking his leg making a game-saving challenge deep in stoppage time of last fall’s MLS Cup final, a game LAFC won on penalty kicks as Crepeau watched from the back of an ambulance. It would be more than 10 months before he was back in an MLS game but Sunday he made seven saves — his best performance in nearly two years — to preserve the win.

“To win big games, you need players having big performances,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, whose team won in Seattle for the first time in five years while handing the Sounders their first playoff loss at home since 2013.

But to get to big games, you need players having big seasons. LAFC got that, especially down the stretch, with Bouanga scoring 10 times in the last six games.

LAFC forward Denis Bouanga, left, winds back his right leg before scoring against Seattle on Sunday.

LAFC forward Denis Bouanga gets off the game-winning shot after beating Sounders defender Yeimar Gómez (28) and midfielder Alex Roldan into the penalty area on Sunday.

(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

“Goal scorers are irreplaceable in this game and Denis has come up with some big goals for us — and a lot of them,” Cherundolo continued.

So many that Bouanga’s 37 scores are just one short of the MLS record for a calendar year held by teammate Carlos Vela. The most recent goal came in a flash, with defender Ryan Hollingshead gathering a loose ball deep in his own end and feeding Timothy Tillman. The midfielder sent the ball ahead for Bouanga, who left two defenders in his wake as he sprinted up the left wing, curled alone into the penalty area and drilled a right-footed shot into the netting at the far post.

“It’s a team goal to get it to that point. And then, of course, once the ball’s at Denis’ feet, there’s nobody else you want with the ball right? He does the rest from there,” Hollingshead said.

Yet Bouanga preferred to talk about his buddy, Crepeau.

“Max came back really strong,” he said through an interpreter. “He really wanted to come back and help us; we had low moments. Max is a really great player and it’s because of him that we won.”

That’s because in addition to goal scorers, successful teams need goal deniers and Crepeau has been that, making 12 saves in back-to-back playoff shutouts and going 230 minutes without giving up a score. Many of his stops Sunday were exceptional, among them a finger-tip deflection of an Albert Rusnak shot in stoppage time and a one-handed save against Jordan Morris, who broke into the LAFC penalty box in the fourth minute.

“Not every keeper makes that save,” Cherundolo said.

Added Hollingshead of the momentum-changing play: “When he made that save, in my head I was like, ‘It’s over. We just won the game.’ That’s a testament to Max.”

The fact he’s back on the field this season is also a testament to him.

Although the play that shattered his right leg arguably saved the MLS Cup for LAFC, it cost Crepeau a spot on Canada’s first World Cup team in 36 years. The days immediately after the injury were the toughest but Crepeau, 29, began rehabbing and riding a stationary bike as soon as he was able. Still, he had a long, potholed road to travel. Months passed before he could walk unaided and he didn’t get back on the field until July, when he played the first of three games for LAFC’s team in the MLS Next Pro development league.

The pain and struggle were worth it for both the player and his team: Crepeau made his first MLS appearance in September and in his 10 league starts, including the playoffs, LAFC has lost only once.

“It’s really satisfying, that’s for sure,” he said.

However the journey isn’t over. Up next in the Western Conference title game on Saturday are the Houston Dynamo, who shut out LAFC twice this season. A win there would send LAFC to Ohio for next month’s MLS Cup final, where it will be bidding to become the league’s first repeat champion since 2012.

After Crepeau and Bouanga hugged in the locker room, Cherundolo gathered his team in the middle of the room where he delivered a short speech, one punctuated by cheering that echoed through the hallways below Seattle’s Lumen Field. But by Tuesday, the coach promised, the cheers will have faded and the team will be back at work.

“We won a playoff game on the road in a very difficult place to play. And that’s all that is,” Cherundolo said of the celebration. “It’s OK to enjoy the moment, to be proud of the work. But come Tuesday we are laser-focused on the objective ahead, which is the first 45 minutes against Houston.”

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