Sources confirmed to The Athletic that LAFC added yet another attacking option on Thursday, when they finalized a deal to acquire Gabon international Denis Bouanga for a fee around $5 million from French club St. Etienne. Bouanga, the sources said, will occupy the club’s third designated player spot.
Bouanga, 27, recorded nine goals and six assists in 34 appearances in Ligue 1 last season, the bulk of which came at his natural position of left winger. He was put on the market after St. Etienne was relegated to Ligue 2, with LAFC’s offer winning out over reported interest from Scottish club Rangers, French side Lille and Belgian clubs Anderlecht and Club Brugge.
His arrival should give LAFC another powerful piece in an attack that has recorded the second-most goals in MLS this season. It also creates the ultimate first-world problem for head coach Steve Cherundolo: How is he going to allocate minutes among LAFC’s stable of attackers?
Bale and Carlos Vela will presumably be the two starting wingers, with Bouanga, the recently-returned-from-injury Brian Rodriguez and youngster Kwadwo Opoku perhaps rotating into the XI whenever Cherundolo decides either of his 30-something stars needs a breather. Cristian Arango is the out-and-out striker, but sources confirmed that LAFC have kicked the tires on moving him at points this summer, and Bouanga did play striker 10 times for St. Etienne last season. Vela and Bale are more than capable of lining up at the No. 9, as well, with Vela moving into the role after Bale subbed on for Arango in the second half of LAFC’s win against Seattle last weekend. It’s conceivable that Arango, Rodriguez and Opoku could all head to the bench and LAFC could start a front three of Bale, Bouanga and Vela, with each member of that front three interchanging between the wing and striker during matches.
Even with striker Danny Musovski and winger Ismael Tajouri-Shradi traded earlier this week to Salt Lake and New England, respectively, that’s still five high-profile and/or highly-paid attackers who will no doubt feel they should start just about every match, plus a sixth in Opoku who has developed nicely this season. They’ll be competing for three positions. Inevitably, some will not get as many minutes as they think they deserve. LAFC have been the class of the league all season, but Cherundolo, still in his first year as a first-team head coach, could have a delicate man-management job on his hands to balance their playing time and emotions down the stretch.
Another move could be on the way, however. There’s been a ton of chatter about a potential Arango exit, but that doesn’t necessarily make a ton of sense. He’s not a perfect player — Cherundolo has critiqued his defensive performances at times this year and has noted that he’d like more from him in possession — but the Colombian has found the net at an incredible clip the last couple of months. He has nine goals and three assists in 16 league starts this season, with seven of those tallies coming in LAFC’s last nine games. He’s their only true No. 9, too. Moving him feels like it’d be a bit too cute.
Bouanga, for those who haven’t seen him play, is a fast, direct player who is skilled on the dribble and likes to run in behind. He’s also an adept set piece taker and a very active presser, finishing last season in the 97th percentile of Ligue 1 attackers in number of attempted pressures. He could theoretically replace Arango up top, but LAFC would likely lose some ability in the box should they make that switch.
Offloading Rodriguez seems like a more manageable proposition. The Uruguayan DP has a ton of talent, but he’s never lived up to expectations in Southern California. He’s also reportedly drawn the eye of Mexican power Club América, which has until the Liga MX transfer window closes on Sept. 5 to complete a deal. Cherundolo has reportedly told Rodriguez and the LAFC front office that he’d like to keep the 22-year-old, but, given the club’s other options on the wing and the fact that they’ve been just fine without him for the bulk of this year, selling him after adding Bouanga doesn’t feel like it’d really be a blow to their trophy chances.
It’d also give the club some DP flexibility ahead of next summer, when the guaranteed portion of Bale’s contract will expire. The club now has three DPs in Bouanga, Vela and Rodriguez. One of them would have to move in order for Bale’s option to be picked up.
Of course, LAFC could just stand pat and attempt to work through any potential locker room complications that may come with having so many talented attackers competing for just three spots. Bouanga, who played 90 minutes in St. Etienne’s Ligue 2 opener last weekend, should arrive with a good level of fitness, but it’ll take time to process his work visa and integrate him into the team. With only two months remaining in the regular season, LAFC could reasonably take it slow with him this year, make a run at the championship with their current squad, then maneuver as needed this winter ahead of what looks like a probable entry to the CONCACAF Champions League.
Regardless of how the next few weeks shake out in regards to LAFC’s roster, this is one of those good headaches, the kind every team in MLS dreams of having. The club is in first-place in MLS with a game in hand on their closest competitors, is deeper than ever and loaded at just about every position. The Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double is very much in play in Los Angeles.
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