Denis Bouanga ends the Nico Lodeiro era as LAFC tops Seattle Sounders in MLS Playoffs


LAFC withstood wave after wave of attack from the Seattle Sounders and rode a counterattacking goal from Denis Bouanga to a 1-0 win at Lumen Field to advance to the MLS Western Conference final on Sunday night.

LAFC will now meet Houston Dynamo for the right to go to MLS Cup at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles next weekend. For the Sounders, meanwhile, yet another solid regular season will end in playoff disappointment as a club legend waves goodbye.

Here are our takeaways from the match.


Bouanga again

A Denis Bouanga goal is about as safe a bet as you can find in MLS these days, and with his devastating first-half finish taking his season tally to 37, he has drawn within one goal of Carlos Vela’s single-season record for an MLS player in all competitions.

The Gabon international opened the scoring on Sunday evening with the type of finish LAFC fans have become accustomed to this season, driving the ball forward from the left wing before cutting inside and finishing powerfully into the far corner.

Bouanga, picked up from then-recently relegated Ligue 2 side Saint Etienne last year, has taken his game to another level in Los Angeles. He has inherited the goalscoring burden from Vela, whose production has declined significantly, to become the team’s undisputed offensive star.

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While the Golden Boot winner failed to have much of an impact outside of his goal, his ability to change the game in an instant makes him one of the league’s most threatening attackers. With two goals in as many games for his national team in the most recent international break, Cherundolo and the LAFC faithful will be grateful their star forward shows no sign of slowing down as the stakes increase.

– Elias Burke


End of an era for Lodeiro

The last ride for Nico Lodeiro in rave green had no storybook ending.

Lodeiro announced on social media last month he had played his last regular season game with the Seattle Sounders, later clarifying to local media that he would be departing the club when his contract expires this winter.

The 34-year-old Uruguayan is one of the greatest Sounders of all time and will go down as one of the best signings in MLS history. Lodeiro joined the Sounders in the summer of 2016 from Boca Juniors and was an instant success, leading Seattle to the club’s first MLS Cup win that year. It was the first of four appearances in MLS Cup final Lodeiro had with Seattle, winning another in 2019. He also led the Sounders to win the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League, the first MLS club to triumph in a competition where many past MLS sides struggled.

go-deeper

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“Nico Lodeiro, man, is the greatest Sounder of all time,” said then-Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey on MLS’s Extratime podcast after the CCL victory. “Set in stone. Hands down.”

Lodeiro made 231 appearances for the Sounders, including  39 this year across all competitions, but lost his starting spot down the stretch. He came off the bench in four of the team’s final seven regular season games and each of their four playoff appearances.

The attacking midfielder is eligible for MLS free agency. It’s unclear what his next step will be at this point.

Lodeiro has been integral to all the success the Sounders has had over the last eight seasons, the driving force on the field and a leader in the locker room, so this truly is the end of an era.

It may be just the beginning. Seattle has a few other difficult decisions to make this winter, perhaps including designated player Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian forward has been in and out of the lineup this year with injuries and also lost his starting spot by season’s end. He’s under contract for 2024, but if he’s not in Seattle’s future plans, a sale might make sense.

– Tom Bogert


LAFC plays the villain

From the time of Los Angeles FC’s inception to the club’s first lift of the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy last season, the club garnered a reputation for a certain ethos. Often, that translated to enthralling soccer on the field, team goals after a couple dozen connect-the-dots passes, audacious shots from outside the box, and iconic headers from players you can’t believe they signed below the designated player threshold.

This year, LAFC hasn’t looked like the same team. They’re winning games, but not often enough to overcome St. Louis City in the conference. They’re getting goals, but they’re more reliant on one player (Denis Bouanga) than previous balances of goalscoring responsibilities. Or, as analyst Calen Carr put it most plainly in the pre-game: they’re catering to Bouanga’s ruthlessness on the break instead of “the breathtaking gorgeous soccer we all loved” (in so many words) of Carlos Vela’s time as the headliner.

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How do you keep results going? You lean into those gunslinger vibes. You walk out of the locker room late for the second half, as LAFC did on Sunday, making the home crowd go from supporting their own players to heckling the opponents. Great – you won the audience. Now you start time-wasting — early, with goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau first getting a warning from Ted Unkel in the 52nd minute. You foul with similar frequency to your opponent, but sell your own falls enough to draw them into seeing the night’s first three yellow cards.

The full-on commitment to the time-wasting kayfabe nearly backfired. Seattle was firmly in control of the second half, owning an unreal 88.1%-11.9% advantage in field tilt — a possession state only considering touches in the attacking thirds. For 88% of the second half, one of the camera operators — that is, the one focusing on Stefan Frei’s goal — was mostly keeping the lens clean. As Crepeau parried shots away and speculative Sounders shots from deep clanged off the frame, it felt like a foregone conclusion.

Seattle got the best of a then-record-setting LAFC side in 2019, getting to another MLS Cup before their newfound rival’s first. This year, it was the newly crowned Los Angeles FC who put the skids on their opposite number.

 – Jeff Rueter

(Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)





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