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Denis Bouanga, Luciano Acosta headline the Best of MLS for Week 16

By Favian Renkel and Justin Ruderman

Welcome back to Week No. 16 of Justin and Favian’s Weekly MLS Awards where SBI staff writers Justin Ruderman and Favian Renkel bring you a glimpse at the best of each week in MLS.

The international break is upon us but Major League Soccer plays on, forcing teams to test their depth or rely even more heavily on the stars who stayed. Our weekly awards across Matchdays 19 and 20 undoubtedly reflect this trend.

Player of the Week

Justin Ruderman: Denis Bouanga (LAFC)

The reigning MLS Golden Boot winner has been sensational at BMO Stadium this season but had only recorded 2 of his 15 goal contributions on the road…until now.

There wasn’t much the Gabonese international didn’t do in Orlando as he returned from World Cup qualification with his country to open the scoring by drawing his MLS-leading fourth penalty of the season. His blistering pace combined with devastating footwork is second to none in this league as he is making a habit of leaving defenders scrambling in his wake.

Once Orlando leveled the scoring in the second half, Bouanga provided an assist with a ball in behind for Mateusz Bogusz to run onto from midfield straight into the Lion’s box for the 80th-minute winner. Of course, he had to make sure the three points were secured with a third goal contribution as he once again split his defenders before rounding the goalkeeper (which Favian will have more on later).

As if his performance needed more to cement his POTW nomination, Bouanga also completed the most successful dribbles (10) and won the most duels (13) of any player on the pitch at Inter&Co Stadium. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, when Olivier Giroud arrives in Los Angeles the Black and Gold attack will send shivers down the spine of opponents as they lay awake in bed on a Friday night before facing the reigning Western Conference champions.

Favian Renkel: Luciano Acosta (FC Cincinnati)

Even what seemed like a lazy match for Luciano Acosta, based on his hairstyle not being slicked back with pomade for his iconic look, turned into another historic performance. “Lucho,” no stranger to making MLS history, did the unthinkable once again.

The reigning MVP recorded three assists at PayPal Park, home of the San Jose Earthquakes, regardless of the opponent. The Argentine “10” achieved a hat trick of assists in a single MLS regular season match for the fourth time in his career.

He has now tied with Marco Etcheverry, Cobi Jones, Jaime Moreno, and Diego Valeri for the third-most games with at least three assists. Acosta almost makes breaking records seem routine. He has a significant chance to win back-to-back MVPs for the first time since Preki over 20 years ago.

Kubo and Acosta both fought for this pick of player of the week, but these assists were just phenomenal. It’s even better that these three assists now make Lucho tie with Lionel Messi for the most assists this season, with 13.

Nasty work from the player with the best hair in the league. 

Young Player of the Week

JR: Brian Gutiérrez (Chicago Fire)

Just a couple of days before his 21st birthday, Brian Gutiérrez kicked off celebrations with a clever assist in Chicago’s dominant 4-1 victory in Toronto.

Guti opened space for himself with a cheeky backheel one-two with Maren Haile-Selassie before playing a cutback cross to the top of the box for Mauricio Pinedo to finish off. It may look simple to the untrained eye but this goal is a result of the Mexican-American’s high football IQ. From creating the space to play the cross to understanding where the danger is at the top of the box, Guti made all the right decisions and got rewarded. Seemingly that was a trend in the match as he completed 98% of his passes, made two key passes including the assist, completed 10 defensive actions, and won 3/3 duels.

With Shaqiri away at the Euros, Chicago’s homegrown product has been handed the keys and is running with them. It’s no wonder Cruz Azul is weighing up another big MLS transfer for this talented youngster.

FR: Leo Afonso (Inter Miami CF)

With Lionel Messi, Matias Rojas, and Luis Suarez all out for Copa America, Inter Miami needs to find goals in every nook and cranny of this roster. Enter 22-year-old second-round MLS Super Draft pick, Leo Afonso.

From playing in MLSNextPro two weeks ago to scoring a game-winning goal on the road for Inter Miami, Leo Afonso is having a crazy couple of weeks.

Facing the Philadelphia Union and down to 9 men due to two red cards, Inter Miami was desperately trying to hold on for a draw to maintain their pace in the Supporter Shield race. With a strategy focused on winning at home and drawing on the road, especially with key players away at international tournaments, they needed someone to step up. Little did they realize they had another capable “Leo” to be the hero the team in Pink desperately needed.

Subbed on in the 90+1st minute, Afonso was brought on to take the load off Leo Campana in the defensive work to see out the result. With fresh legs, Afonso got a breakaway through ball from his MLS Super Draft Pick classmate Yannick Bright, giving him the opportunity to achieve greatness in such a short time. Afonso got on the end of the pass from Bright, took on MLS Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes 1-on-1, and made the Union legend look like he was in MLSNextPro before beating the Union keeper to spoil the party.

Afonso may not have had the craziest stats this matchday, but he showed up in a big moment and will forever be remembered by his Heron faithful for his heroics on the road while Lionel Messi was trying to win the 16th Copa America for Argentina.

Goal of the Week

JR: Ryan Guald (Vancouver Whitecaps)

“But the keeper didn’t move!” shout the critics. Yeah, that’s because he was frozen in place.

It may only have been a consolation goal but Ryan Gauld’s 30-yard screamer was the best of the Scot’s nine goals this season. Revolution goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic didn’t know which way to dive as the ball swerved right then left before flying over his head in the last minute of the match.

Truthfully, Vancouver is lucky to lose this game 3-2 rather than 3-0 because Gauld should be in Germany at the Euros with Scotland.

FR: Denis Bouanga (LAFC)

“WHOOP, WHOOP Bouanga goes all the way.” Just like how Chris Berman would call it on ESPN’s SportsCenter, this goal highlights how badly Bouanga made the defense look, causing two defenders to crash into each other and juking out the goalkeeper to calmly pass the ball into the back of the net. 

Maybe not the flashiest of goals in terms of difficulty, but this goal deserved a shout for making Orlando City look like the USL side they used to be a decade ago.

Team of the Week

JR: Charlotte FC

Impressive performances aren’t just about the scoreline.

Charlotte FC only beat D.C. United 1-0 at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday but they did it in dominant fashion. The hallmark defensive solidity of Dean Smith’s teams was on full display as Charlotte allowed just a single shot on target in the match with D.C. limited to 0.25xG from zero big chances.

On the other end of the pitch where they have struggled significantly more this season, the home side racked up 1.8xG on three big chances created despite (as usual) controlling under 50% possession.

Smith has forged a strong identity for The Crown who now sit fifth in the Eastern Conference behind the most clean sheets in MLS (8). Aided by the second-highest average home attendance in MLS, they have rightfully built Bank of America into a fortress for their fans with the best home record in the Eastern Conference (6-1-3; 21 points).

Most incredibly, they’re doing this all with essentially zero designated players. Leil Abada occupies a Young DP spot. Enzo Copetti was transferred out, Karol Swiderski is on loan and likely on his way out permanently, while Brecht Dejaegere technically occupies a DP slot for complicated MLS roster reasons despite his $1.179m salary being well under the $1.651m max TAM threshold. When Smith gets the designated players he wants to aid offensive production, watch out for Charlotte.

FR: Inter Miami CF

Can this team really keep up without Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Matias Rojas to win the Supporters’ Shield?

If anything points to a glimmer of hope, it’s the recent wins against the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Philadelphia Union without some superstars. The Herons look as motivated as ever to help Inter Miami raise their first piece of MLS hardware. Tata Martino has this team playing like they are family, seriously. It must be all the “asados” they have together. They are the only team with a training pitch that has an asado cart stationed there. Yes, you read that right. Look.

Having already won the Leagues Cup and with the best player in the world missing games to play internationally, the team in pink was expected to drop off in form this summer. Yet, with 9 men in the match versus the Union, Inter Miami still found a way to get it done, showing that this team isn’t just about the superstars Miami is known for but is a very deep team by MLS standards.

Inter Miami is still having spectacular comebacks at the end of matches, even if it’s not from the same Leo we all know and love. Leo Campana and Leo Afonso have come up with late goals, and if Inter Miami can hold off with some more wins out of the five more games until Lionel Messi returns, the Supporters’ Shield might already be wrapped up before the MLS All-Star Game.

There are still some gaping holes in the backline, but with Sergio Busquets making one of the biggest salaries in MLS, the Spaniard needs to take over as the leader of this team and start becoming an MVP candidate. If Busquets picks up his form like at the beginning of the season and Inter Miami gets healthier, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez coming back from Copa America and securing a couple of center-back replacements, this team could walk through to the MLS Cup Final with ease.

It’s still a big “if” whether they can hold off until Copa America is over.

Best thing we saw this week

JR: Super-sub Yuya Kubo

Nine minutes and ten seconds.

That’s how long it took FC Cincinnati’s Swiss army knife Yuya Kubo to record the 8th hat trick ever by a substitute in MLS. Unsurprisingly, that is the second-fastest hat trick in the past two decades of a league that isn’t even three decades old.

Kubo combined with reigning MLS MVP Luciano Acosta on all three goals to become just the second Cincinnati player in their MLS history to score a hat trick as he led the defending Supporters’ Shield winners to a 4-2 win in San Jose.

Second this, second that. Kubo also became the first Japanese player to win an MLS Player of the Matchday award in a record-setting week for the 30-year-old.

FR: The Teen Titans steal the show in New England

The 19-year-old homegrowns run havoc at Gillette Stadium.

Noel Buck and Esmir Bajraktarevic both scored to help the New England Revolution grab their third consecutive win, a feat that Greg Vanney has yet to achieve with Riqui Puig and the LA Galaxy in three and a half seasons.

With goals from both New England Revolution teenagers, this is only the second time this has happened in Revolution history.

So, who’s Robin and Beast Boy?

Robin – Esmir

Beast Boy – Noel


  1. There are times when you see an MLS player and wonder why they aren’t playing in Europe. I thought that way about Diego Valeri in Portland. Now I think that way about Bouanga at LAFC.


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