Steve Cherundolo Revamped LAFC

In Cherundolo, LAFC found a focused, and relatable leader who has his team one win away from claiming the franchise's first MLS Cup.

LOS ANGELES — For the very first time in their history, LAFC will compete in the MLS Cup Final.

It has taken five seasons to reach this milestone, and the team has transformed quite a bit since their inaugural 2018 season, in both grandiose ways and subtle but relevant nuances. The team that made it to the Western Conference Final in their second year but lost to the eventual Cup-winning Seattle Sounders, has grown up.

Back in 2019, LAFC had already clicked in significant ways and built a culture of their own comprised by unwavering supporter clubs, a state-of-the-art stadium and facility in a prime location, players of international and national acclaim, a brand image that invoked a slick modern look, and very importantly, they were also developing a style all their own. You knew it when you saw it – a barrage of goals, clinical, unyielding, a bit unpolished but they almost always got the job done.

LAFC set a new single-season points record, and Carlos Vela had the best campaign in MLS history. Particularly when LAFC played at home, their opponents took note they were deep in enemy territory. Current LAFC fullback Ryan Hollingshead who played for FC Dallas in years prior, reflects on the unique nature of the environment at the Banc as making it difficult on visiting teams, while “you got the Banc screaming at you, to keep a level head.”

The reward for their efforts in 2019 was their first team hardware, the MLS Supporters Shield. But for all the glory it yielded, LAFC seemed to have peaked, because the subsequent years brought disenchanting ends. In 2020, after finishing 7th in the regular season, they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Sounders again. In 2021, they did not even qualify for the playoffs, finishing in a paltry 9th place in the western conference table. After such a promising start to club history, their identity was in doubt. Some pieces were missing from the LAFC puzzle.

In 2022, two major changes have made a mountain of difference. One is obvious. An almost unnecessarily deep roster unburdened from the past that instead looks towards the future. LAFC’s roster has significantly changed year upon year, to the point where there are hardly any 2018 originals left.

Gone are the years of Golden Boot winners Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi dominating the offensive machine that was LAFC. Only three players remain from the inaugural year – Carlos Vela, Latif Blessing and Eddie Segura – and, of the three, only Vela was on the pitch in the Western Conference Final against Austin FC. While Vela certainly played his role fittingly in LAFC’s 3-0 route over Austin, his teammates took most of the glory, a definitive team win. Blessing has not yet even played in any of this season’s playoffs matches. That speaks in part to the enormous depth of current iteration of LAFC.

Only twice (in 2021 and in 2018) in the history of the MLS Golden Boot award, has the goal scoring leader of MLS actually captured the MLS Cup in the same year. Thus, it really is rare that the last team standing has a singular hero. Cristián Arango comes closest to LAFC’s hero but fell short of winning the Golden Boot this year. Rather, he fits the bill as potential MVP of his team and maybe of the league. Yet he has been reluctant to take the credit.

Throughout the season he has credited his teammates for the goals he scores. For him it is more important to be “providing for my team, contributing to my team and also being a fundamental player so we can bring our team to the next level,” Arango reiterates. And while Chicho has delivered the most goals for his team, this season has also allowed for others to take center stage – Vela, Cifuentes, Opoku, Bouanga – and make critical contributions to their team goal tally.

The second critical shift factoring into their transition began when Bob Bradley, LAFC’s first head coach, was replaced by first-year MLS coach, Steve Cherundolo. In Cherundolo, LAFC found a focused, but also relatable and subtle leader. And, most importantly, his experiences as a defender on the international level for the USMNT and for Hannover 96 in the Bundesliga gave him the intellectual insight into one of the missing pieces of LAFC’s style of play, a defensive awareness not just for the backline, but for all players, forwards included.

Christian “Chicho” Arango already noted how that was one part of his own journey to become a more well-rounded contributor to LAFC’s team successes this year. Earlier in the season, Cherundolo issued a passive-aggressive complaint in a post-game comment “[No. 9] can play better defensively and with the ball… there were too many unforced errors…”

“This is [Steve’s] team. This team has his identity. Everything we do and that we can achieve, it’s going to be because of him in the first place,” Ilie Sánchez muses. On October 2, 2022 Cherundolo broke the record for most wins as a first-year head coach in MLS with 21 wins after LAFC beat the Portland Timbers 2–1.

Cherundolo has coached at almost all levels after his career as a player, from the youth level to assistant coaching roles with Hannover and VfB Stuttgart to LAFC’s USL affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights. And while he didn’t have a stellar record at the Vegas Lights (was the worst record in the Western Conference), his success in developing defender Mamadou Fall in 2021 afforded a glimpse into his potential for LAFC this season.

“He’s gotten the best out of all of us,” Kellyn Acosta explains. “He’s implemented his systems and his tactics, and I think collectively, as a group, we bought into it and he’s gotten the best out of every player.”

The Western Conference Final against Austin FC, normally quite intense in their attack, was a case in point for Cherundolo’s tactics and development coming to bear fruit. His coaching staff has focused on set pieces, details of the game, rather than increasing duration or intensity of training. He encouraged the team to play to their strengths while also pushing them to grow their skill sets.

He has embraced the electric level of intensity that LAFC of the past already had, and added his own defensive finesse. “It’s just been our goal all season to push games as fast as we can because we can go fast and want to go fast,” Cherundolo asserts.

Watching the new-look LAFC, one can’t help but see style reminiscent of many Bundesliga teams in the 2020s, endless action without pause in the midfield and an effervescent idealism. So what if LAFC shoot 20 times for just 2 goals? For anyone but a perfectionist, it is fun to watch.

The results are speaking for themselves. And, if they don’t speak loudly enough, Cherundolo’s players do. “He allows us to enjoy our game and focus on what we do best,” Chicho concludes. As they now prepare for the biggest soccer stage in the nation, LAFC 2.0 has arrived.

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