Wednesday, February 28 2024
Los Angeles FC forward Denis Bouanga (99) winds back to score as Seattle Sounders defender Yeimar Gómez (28) and midfielder Alex Roldan, right, look on during the first half of an MLS conference semifinal playoff soccer match Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
LAFC striker Denis Bouanga‘s goal Saturday helped lift LAFC over Seattle and into the Western Conference final. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Four MLS quarterfinals went over 400 combined minutes this weekend and produced a grand total of five goals. They brimmed with tension and tenacity, with tough tackles and tight tactics. They were high on drama and controversy, but perhaps a bit short on quality — until LAFC visited Seattle on Sunday night.

The reigning champs weathered a Rave Green storm in the second of two Western Conference semis. The Sounders, over two long hours, looked like the better team. But it was LAFC that produced the classiest 10 seconds of the playoff round, and emerged with a 1-0 win.

It was Timothy Tillman who sprayed a sharp ball out to the left in the 30th minute, and Cristian Olivera who dummied it and unlocked the Sounders defense.

Then it was Denis Bouanga, the league’s top scorer, who did the rest. He carried the ball in stride, at speed, straight into the penalty area. And then he picked out the top corner, emphatically.

Before and after Bouanga’s moment, the Sounders doubled LAFC’s shot total. They quadrupled LAFC’s shots on target. But as they attacked and attacked, and attacked some more, they occasionally left themselves exposed.

Their right fullback, Alex Roldan, loves to get forward in possession. LAFC, at times, would leave Bouanga high on the left, in the space that Roldan would vacate. So that’s where Tillman looked in transition; and that’s why the Seattle defense was suddenly scrambling when Olivera eliminated Yeimar Gómez without even touching the ball.

Bouanga exploited that space. His goal held up as the only breakthrough, in large part thanks to goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau. Crépeau made several massive saves, in the game’s opening minutes and again late on. Nearly a year after he fractured his leg in the 2022 MLS Cup final, he smothered Sounders chances and soared to tip away long-range shots.

LAFC also defended well. Giorgio Chiellini was stoic. The visitors held on, and will now become the Western Conference final hosts. They’ll welcome the Houston Dynamo — who beat Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in Sunday’s first quarterfinal — to BMO Stadium on Saturday. And they will be favored to return to the doorstep of another title.

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