The pressure is on: LAFC’s latest acquisition solidifies MLS Cup favorite status

LAFC, which already had more weapons than the U.S. Army, added another Friday when it announced the signing of forward Denis Bouanga, who spent five seasons in the French first division.

It was like giving Hercules more muscles or Einstein more brains. And it arguably made the best team in MLS this season one of the best teams in MLS history.

Well, one of the best teams without a title anyway.

Filling that title void now becomes the challenge for LAFC, which entered the weekend leading the league in wins and points, and ranking second in goals. It led MLS in all three categories in 2019, when it broke or tied three league records en route to a Supporters’ Shield (best league record).

Yet the team has just one playoff win to show for that excellence.

LAFC reportedly paid Saint-Etienne a $5 million transfer fee for Bouanga, then signed him through 2025 just before the secondary transfer window closed. He is LAFC’s first designated-player signing in three years and it will make anything less than an MLS Cup this fall a failure because general John Thorrington has done a marvelous job constructing a roster that is deep at every position.

“Credit to LAFC and the organization. It put together an amazing roster, a very deep one,” said coach Steve Cherundolo, who now has no excuses. “It’s one we’ve gotten to know and we know how to use it.”

In the last two months, Thorrington signed Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini, who led his country to the last European Championship, and Welsh captain Gareth Bale, a five-time Champions League winner, for about what the Galaxy are giving oft-injured winger Douglas Costa. LAFC also signed Carlos Vela, the league’s single-season scoring leader, to an 18-month contract extension.

It now adds the 27-year Bouanga, a Gabon international in the prime of his career, to a front line that already includes Vela; MVP candidate Cristian Arango, the team’s leading scorer; and Uruguayan Brian Rodríguez. It’s an attack so stacked, Bale has yet to crack the starting lineup.

the pressure is on: lafc’s latest acquisition solidifies mls cup favorite status
Saint-Etienne’s Denis Bouanga controls the ball during a match in September 2020.(Daniel Cole / Associated Press)

“You could argue that they just had the best transfer window anybody’s ever had,” Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “I really think that John’s one of the best GMs in the league.”

But it’s Lagerwey and the Sounders who remain the league’s gold standard, having won two MLS Cups and a CONCACAF Champions League in the last seven seasons, twice knocking LAFC out of the playoffs.

“Certainly the goal for all of us is very clearly MLS Cup and it makes total sense that LAFC would load up to try to win that,” Lagerwey said. “Yeah, they’ve had a bunch of good teams. But they haven’t won that yet.”

That’s what this season’s rebuild was all about. And Thorrington went about it masterfully, stockpiling more than $1.6 million in allocation money in a series of trades that began last summer, then using that money to acquire goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, defender Francisco Escobar and national team midfielder Kellyn Acosta.

This summer he added Chiellini and Bale, once the most expensive player in soccer history, on TAM deals worth a reported $1.5 million each — a contractual sleight of hand so extraordinary a rival suggested Thorrington was cheating.

“One of the hardest things to do in this league is have a deep roster,” said Will Kuntz, LAFC’s vice president of soccer operations. “Because of the way the rules are structured, the spending is limited. So our learnings after four years were that if we can kind of keep our philosophy of having a young core of exciting players who can play the style, but maybe supplement it with some more experienced veteran players who’ve been around the league, that actually helps.”

However, all this means nothing if LAFC comes up short in the postseason again.

“There is a lot of pressure,” said Kuntz, who began his career with the New York Yankees at a time when anything less than a World Series title was unacceptable. “But I think that’s something that we embrace, having those standards. Having that level of public focus being turned on us galvanizes us and it’s something we really get excited about.”

“L.A. is like New York,” he continued. “It’s a ‘what have you done for me lately town.’ What we’ve done now is we’ve just set the diving board a little bit higher. So if we belly flop, it’s louder and more people see it.”

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