Denis Bouanga’s two goals power LAFC to El Tráfico triumph over Galaxy

MLS

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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Denis Bouanga #99 of Los Angeles FC celebrates.
LAFC’s Denis Bouanga celebrates after scoring his first of two goals Saturday in a 4-2 win over the rival Galaxy at BMO Stadium. (Shaun Clark / Getty Images)

They weren’t exactly ships passing in the night, but LAFC and the Galaxy were heading in decidedly different directions when they collided in the fourth El Tráfico of the year Saturday night.

The Galaxy came in as one of hottest teams in MLS since late May, losing just once in 12 games. LAFC, meanwhile, had just two league wins in the last 12 weeks, the worst 10-game skid in franchise history. By the end of the night all that had changed, however, with Denis Bouanga scoring a goal in each half to give LAFC a 4-2 victory at a sold-out BMO Stadium.

The win gives LAFC a much-needed shot of momentum heading into the final month of the regular season.

“A much-needed three points,” a relieved coach Steve Cherundolo said. “I think it was clear from minute one who was winning this game tonight. We were the better team.”

With the win, the defending MLS champion climbed to second in the Western Conference, six points back of St. Louis, its next opponent. And the team is finally healthy too. Cherundolo had a full roster to work with for the first time in months, which allowed him to give goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau his first league start since last November’s MLS Cup, which Crepeau left with a fractured leg.

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That was 315 days ago.

Despite the team’s recent struggles, Cherundolo said he never lost faith in his players.

“I get to see the guys every day. And that has a calming effect,” Cherundolo said. “Sometimes it doesn’t click during games, but it’s like riding a bike, the qualities that players have. Sometimes you get a flat tire, but it’s easy to fix.”

Speaking of flats, while the Galaxy have been pedaling as fast they can to get back into the playoff picture, Saturday’s loss took a lot of air out of that push.

The team was buried at the bottom of the 14-team Western Conference, seven points out of a playoff berth, when it caught fire last spring. Yet despite collecting points in 11 of their last 13 matches, the Galaxy gained just one spot in the standings, leaving them five points shy of the ninth and final playoff berth.

Now with seven games remaining, the Galaxy (7-11-9), which has lost four starters to season-ending injuries and was without another, midfielder Douglas Costa, on Saturday, may be running out of time and players in their push for the postseason.

“We’ve got enough points in front of us, [but] we’ve got to perform,” said coach Greg Vanney, whose team faces playoff contenders Minnesota and Austin over the next eight days. “The next two games are against teams that we’re trying to track down. Tonight was obviously an important game, because every point matters.”

In addition to getting LAFC back on track, Saturday’s game may mark a turnaround for Bouanga, whose two goals ended a two-month drought and gave him a share of the MLS scoring lead with 14.

His first goal got LAFC (12-9-7) started, giving it a short-lived lead in the 24th minute when he sliced between Galaxy center backs Chris Mavinga and Maya Yoshida to get on the end of a Diego Palacios’ cross and head it home from the edge of the six-yard box.

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PA announcer Eric Smith hadn’t even finished announcing the score to the crowd of 22,132 before Billy Sharp tied the game for the Galaxy, taking a heel pass from Diego Fagúndez as he dashed into the box, then beating Crepeau cleanly for his third goal in five MLS games.

Ryan Hollingshead, back from a lower-body injury that sidelined him last week, snapped the tie in the 33rd minute on a left-footed shot from just outside the box. The goal was his 10th in the last two seasons, most among MLS defenders.

But the Galaxy came back again, evening the score 14 minutes into the second half on a Yoshida header from the edge of the six-yard box. Fagúndez started that play too, sending a cross into the box for Tyler Boyd, who headed it on to Yoshida for the goal, his first in MLS.

Mavinga then gave that score — and the momentum — back to LAFC. After beating Stipe Biuk to a long Hollingshead through-ball, he tried to nudge it back to keeper Jonathan Bond, but his pass was lazy and didn’t account for Bouanga, who was sprinting up the center of the field. Bond saw the onrushing LAFC forward and broke off his line to challenge him, but Bouanga got to the ball first, rounding the keeper for the easy finish.

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“It felt really good,” Bouanga, speaking through an interpreter, said of his first multi-goal game since April. “It gives the team a really good push. But I think we can do better.”

Timothy Tillman closed out the scoring with his third goal of the season in the 84th minute. The four goals matched the most by LAFC in an MLS game in 13 months and the most against the Galaxy since the MLS Is Back tournament in 2020. It also matched the most the Galaxy has allowed in a game this season.

“This [was] a great chance for us to just change the momentum,” Hollingshead said. “A big-time rivalry win, three points on the board. So a lot of positives for sure to take from this game.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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