When the Los Angeles Football Club advanced to last season's MLS Cup final, Dénis Bouanga was still finding his way on a new team and in a new country.
Bouanga was still important to the team's finish and playoff run last year, but this season's Golden Boot winner as the league-leading scorer is far more comfortable as he aims to help Los Angeles FC secure a second straight title.
"I was a part of the preseason, so it was easier than last year. Last year, I arrived just for the MLS Cup and we won, but I was not really at my level," the French winger said. "This year, because I started in the preseason, I was able to step up my game being with the team on the field, but also on the language."
LAFC visits the Columbus Crew at 4 p.m. Saturday in the MLS Cup title match, which will be televised by Fox, with a chance to become just the fourth team in league history with back-to-back championships — and the first since the Los Angeles Galaxy won in 2011-12.
Bouanga made the most of his full year in Los Angeles, taking home the Golden Boot after scoring 20 goals during the MLS regular season. He also had seven assists. He had 37 goals across all competitions.
Bouanga, who plays internationally for Gabon, played professionally in France with Saint-Étienne before he signed with LAFC in August 2022. His winning goal against the Portland Timbers helped LAFC secure the 2022 Supporter's Shield as the team with the most points in the MLS regular season.
"I think when he came last season, I think it took time for him to understand our model, and for us to understand him," LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said.
Last season, LAFC prevailed 3-0 on penalty kicks after a 3-3 draw with the Philadelphia Union to win the title. But goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau fractured his leg in extra time and wasn't able to celebrate with his teammates. The injury also dashed his hopes to play in goal for Canada at the World Cup in Qatar last year.
Crépeau returned to the club this July and played five games with LAFC2 of MLS Next Pro before rejoining the senior team in late September. He has three shutouts in the postseason.
"He has continued with his strength, his explosiveness, more touches on the ball, more comfortable playing out of the back," Cherundolo said. "And then for any goalkeeper, it's always about shot stopping. I think he just continues down the path he had all season, getting better and better and better. And now he's obviously in great form."
LAFC will face a defensive challenge against the Crew, who scored 67 goals in the regular season, more than any other team. They also led the playoff field with 13 goals.
Columbus, like LAFC, was a No. 3 seed but got to host the title game because of a better regular-season point total. The Crew advanced on a 3-2 victory over the top seed and Supporters Shield winner, FC Cincinnati, in the Eastern Conference title match.
The Crew are in the MLS Cup final for the fourth time, having won in 2008 and 2020 with a runner-up finish in 2015.
Cucho Hernandez has led this year's team with four goals and two assists through its five playoff games. In the conference final against Cincinnati, he served a header to Christian Ramirez for the winner in the 115th minute.
Hernandez led the Crew with 16 goals and 11 assists this season.
"He's a full package," Cherundolo said. "He's technically good, he's physically good. Savvy. I think he's intelligent, he knows where to float, kind of being off the shoulder of defenders, is playing at a very high level. He's the full package, so we have our hands full."
Like Bouanga, Hernandez joined Columbus midway through the 2022 season.
And like Bouanga, he has become more comfortable this season.
"I am very pleased about the experience that I have had and been able to reach here in MLS," Hernandez said. "I believe that it's been the correct decision that I've made in my life and also in my playing career."