LAFC, Steve Cherundolo goes full steam ahead in the hunt for more trophies
A year ago, LAFC was in the desert for pre-season games ahead of the 2022 Major League Soccer season. The Black and Gold, having had their worst year ever, were given a new lead with Steve Cherundolo. There was plenty of criticism when the hiring was announced, but managing director John Thorrington knew all along that he had the right man.
Still, even the biggest optimist couldn’t imagine what would happen for the rest of the year.
Looking back on a historic season that saw LAFC win the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield, Cherundolo thinks back to that trip to the desert.
“We had a moment of coming together as a group, it was one of my favorite parts of the season,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Seeing them enjoying each other’s company, accepting each other and becoming a team gave me a lot of satisfaction. I know it when I see it – you can feel it, and it was there.”
It was the start of what was to be a year many have dreamed of.
As LAFC racked up victories throughout the campaign, it was clear they were out to make a statement. And it also became clear that Cherundolo was the perfect catalyst to guide them. What was once skepticism turned to mostly praise as the rookie head coach set an MLS record en route to 21 regular season wins.
Somewhere between the successes, they were able to bring in global superstars like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini to flex their muscles in the competition.
That was the crucial point of the season that proved just how valuable a foundation Cherundolo had built in just a short time at the helm. Adding those players to a team that was already at the top of the standings brought its own misgivings. Will they be able to adapt to the dressing room and competition? Can a new head coach manage game time and egos?
The answer was yes, to all of the above.
“He knows when to be serious, when to joke and most importantly to give the players freedom and flexibility,” said Carlos Vela. “The relationship he built with players was very good. When you feel like a coach has that confidence in you, you work in a better way. It’s the best way to return the confidence he gives us.”
The ability of Cherundolo and his coaching staff to strike a balance is what he is most proud of. Due to his past experiences as a player and coach for USL’s Las Vegas Lights FC, he really wanted to focus on revamping LAFC’s defensive efforts in terms of transition and lower defense. It’s no surprise that a player like Diego ‘Chiqui’ Palacios has been praised so much and has thrived in his system, as has pretty much everyone else who has rotated in that back line. Then they brought in arguably one of the most respected central defenders in the world to reinforce that mentality even more.
They didn’t need Chiellini to be what he was for Juventus or the Italian national team. Nor did they need Bale to be the fast and furious goalscoring machine he was at Real Madrid. Both the players and the coaches understood that, and in turn the team was able to change their identities with them in the herd.
“What they added to the dressing room when it could have gone either way was incredible,” said Cherundolo. “Their leadership and experience was definitely something we were hoping for, and we got 100 percent.”
Bale only scored 2 goals in the end. One of these happened to be an equalizer in the 128th minute of MLS Cup extra time to send the game to penalties. Biggest goal in LAFC history? Probably, at least for now.
That’s just how good the script was.
They defeated their rivals, the LA Galaxy, to start the playoffs. Cherundolo calls that the moment when they knew they could give it their all. They then followed it up with their best performance of the year in the Western Conference Finals, a 3–0 victory over Austin FC. The icing on the cake was an instant classic against the Philadelphia Union for the MLS Cup.
Could it have been even more perfect?
“No,” said Cherundolo. “I’d be disappointed if Peter Guber didn’t turn this into a movie.”
However, the sequel becomes difficult.
MLS has not seen repeat champions since the Galaxy in 2011-12. Things were very different back then. And in addition to the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield double they won last year, LAFC will also compete for 3 other trophies: CONCACAF Champions League, US Open Cup and Leagues Cup.
The Black and Gold exceeded expectations last year, but this year’s challenge is a different one. They traded Cristian “Chicho” Arango, the most dynamic striker they had, to Liga MX club Pachuca. Bale, despite not playing a major part in his months in LA, performed when it mattered most and then retired. Goalkeeper Max Crepeau is still recovering from his broken leg in that wild cup final.
For the most part, the team hasn’t had too much turnover so can be expected to remain one of the best in the league. Their ambition remains as they have signed the likes of Stipe Biuk, Sergi Palencia, Aaron Long, Timothy Tillman and Denis Maldonado to complete the roster.
If LAFC wants to use a little more hardware, they’ll have to prioritize matches because the calendar is packed. But that is a test that this club embraces. Some even started preparations not long after confetti filled the Los Angeles sky on Nov. 5.
“I think I turned my football brain off for a little over a week,” Cherundolo told Yahoo Sports. “That’s a new record for me.”
The coach was able to take some vacation with his family, but was soon back to work as there was still so much to do. Steve, in his true nature, doesn’t allow himself to really celebrate the moment. Simply put: we keep going.
“Maybe I’ll think about it years later when I’m out of a job and spend a lot of time in my garden,” Cherundolo said when asked if he’s taken a step back to enjoy his achievements. “I haven’t really slowed down to think about it.”
LAFC has its foot on the gas and is moving forward at full speed.