Saturday's Western Conference Final between LAFC and Houston Dynamo FC at BMO Stadium (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) will feature a matchup between two of MLS's best players at their respective positions.
For hosts LAFC, Gabon international winger Dénis Bouanga is the league's most prolific goal-scorer, with his 37 tallies across all competitions – just one shy of teammate Carlos Vela for the all-time MLS record for goals in a calendar year. The visiting Dynamo will counter with Mexico international Héctor Herrera, their do-everything, tone-setting midfielder whose 17 assists were good for second in MLS behind only Atlanta United's Thiago Almada (19).
Who makes the bigger impact between the two Designated Player standouts might well decide which club punches their ticket to this year's MLS Cup on Dec. 9, where the victor will travel to meet either FC Cincinnati or the Columbus Crew.
There are few sights more intimidating for MLS defenders than Bouanga in transition. The 29-year-old combines his breakneck pace with a devastating finishing ability that's fueled his season-long tear, which saw him win the 2023 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi with 20 regular-season goals.
He's continued his red-hot form in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, racking up four more goals, including a first-half game-winner in the Western Conference Semifinals at Seattle Sounders FC that provided a perfect illustration of his dynamic skillset.
Tasked with trying to slow Bouanga down on Saturday, Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen admitted this week it's much easier said than done.
"When we talk about Bouanga, he’s got the physical attributes that are tough to stop," Olsen said. "And he's got the quality in and around goal and he's relentless in what he wants to do, and that's get on the scoreboard. So he's got a lot of great qualities. Good smell in the box for where it's going to arrive. But he also has one-v-one ability and he's very dangerous in transition on just pure speed running off the ball.
"So that's a tough guy to stop. But so is Héctor, but very, very different profiles."
Bouanga's impact extends beyond the gaudy numbers on the scoresheet, according to LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo.
"Denis' goals are irreplaceable," Cherundolo said. "That is the case for any attacker in any team: Goals are what separates teams in this sport and that's how you win games. And so I think the goals are obviously his biggest contribution to the group. There are some indirect contributions he has because of his prolific nature; he attracts defenders and that can open up spots for other players and open up opportunities for other players."
While few, if any, players in MLS can match Bouanga's quality in front of goal, Herrera has an argument as the league's best facilitator.
The assist numbers speak for themselves, but Olsen said Herrera's true value can be found in the myriad of different ways he manages to impact the game. When it comes to controlling the tempo from midfield, ball progression and providing a two-way presence, Herrera has been in a class of his own in 2023.
"His lower-line playmaking ability for us to move the ball forward and find our dangerous guys in our attacking half, I think he's the best in the league," Olsen explained. "I think he's the best central midfield playmaker that the league has right now. He's also able to not only advance the ball, but also he can come into the attack and he's got quality to score and his final product with the 17, 18 assists whatever he has at this point, that’s a lot. That's a lot of final product. And he's just been a joy to coach.
"He pulls the strings for us, that's not something we hide from. He's a vital piece to how we play on both sides of the ball."
Asked about the matchup with the longtime Mexico international star, Cherundolo said Herrera's technical acumen and big-game experience have fueled Houston's dramatic 2023 turnaround.
"Similar to some of our players, incredibly experienced," Cherundolo said. "World-class player. Obviously plays the part physically, technically, mentally. Very smart, technical. He has the experience to understand how to play in big games too, games that matter. So, it's been a great addition for them this year. I think this tier of Houston is, for me, this year the most improved team compared to last season, without a doubt. It's been fun to watch, very successful, and we'll have our hands full Saturday."
Herrera's impact has also clearly been felt in the locker room, where his leadership has aided a culture shift that's changed the trajectory of the club. Vela, who knows HH well from their time with El Tri, highlighted those attributes as his biggest source of admiration.
"He’s a great person. I’ve always said he’s a person who can entertain you," Vela said in Spanish. "He’s a real character, one of the good ones, and I love it. I love speaking with him, the few times we run into each other we talk and laugh. It’s hard not to laugh with Herrera, and I like him a lot as a person.
"He gives off good vibes, I laugh and have a good time with him. And obviously, as a player, I think we all see the quality he has. I’d love to play with him, have him give me all that freedom, all those balls he plays, [he creates] so many chances. Playing against and facing people like him is positive."