Steve Cherundolo’s recipe for success with LAFC

Equal parts ambitious, pragmatic, honest, hard-working, introspective, humble and empathetic, Steve Cherundolo is exactly the unlikely leader LAFC needed.

LOS ANGELES — In 2022, LAFC accomplished a feat that just four other MLS teams have – winning the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield in the same season. But it whetted their appetite for more.

“They would like to do everything in their power to get a trophy because they like it,” head coach Steve Cherundolo deadpanned after LAFC trounced Philadelphia Union 3-0 at BMO Stadium in the second leg of the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League Semifinal, and continued, “and they will do everything in their power to make it happen.”

He didn’t smile. He rarely smiles in post-game pressers. Even as he promised the locker room was a scene of joy stating “we are ecstatic to be in the Final of this competition. It was a highlight on our calendar,” not a whiff of a pride or contentment showed across Cherundolo’s face.

It’s not that the LAFC coach is not happy. He simply doesn’t focus on the present moment longer than needed, whether it is a success or a failure. He explains, “We don’t dwell on the successes too much. Nor do we dwell on games that didn’t go our way.” 

Mar 18, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo during the game against the Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Cherundolo is a portrait of balancing cultural and sporting nuances, shaped by his own life experiences and healthy self-reflection. He isn’t just a straightforward results-oriented tactician like Ralf Rangnick, Ewald Lienen or Tayfun Korkut, his teachers in Germany. He is keenly aware of the breadth of distinct styles that his national team coaches Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann provided for him as well as guides. “All three of them are very different in the way they approached the U.S. men’s national team, but all three of them were very successful. I’ve taken something from all of them.”

He’s also not a “company-man” though it’s easy to mistake him as one. Cherundolo seems content being a team player, whether it’s as an assistant coach or head coach, an MLS coach, or one who desires higher levels of international fame. He shies away from complements. When two-time MLS Coach of the Year Jim Curtin took the opportunity to praise him after their latest meeting at BMO, Cherundolo humbly replied and changed the topic. In his viewpoint, the club (not the individual), is the focus. “At any possible moment, and when it’s your turn, you have to give everything for LAFC and put LAFC in the position to win games. And it’s about LAFC. It’s not about individuals. It’s not about a coach or player or whoever. It’s about this organization,” he insists.

There are moments you catch glimpses of the Arena effect in the way Cherundolo’s players praise him or when he frankly expounds about the mixed messaging of league financial rules. At other times, his exacting nature comes across bluntly but not cruelly, more in the way of Klinsmann or his other German coaches. Cherundolo doesn’t hold back on his criticisms or complements which are both even-handed. He manages to be both a serious and methodical tactician, and an approachable reliable resource for his team akin to his “Mayor of Hannover” nickname.

In 2022, when everyone (including me) was singing the praises of Cristian Arango, as he tore through opponents’ defenses game after game, accruing points towards a potential run for MLS Golden Boot, it was his coach who pointed out that Arango could improve upon his defensive awareness. In that moment of mid-season clarity, it became apparent Cherundolo was aiming to insert something new into the fabric of LAFC’s aggressive and fast-paced style of play – to tone down the volatility of needless shots at goal (20 shots for each goal was common), and hone in on those opportunities that could produce real results while focusing on protecting their own goal as a team. It wasn’t a complex plan, just insertion of a single element into their club’s genetic code, and it worked.

This year, he is fine-tuning that system, while allowing for a natural turnover in LAFC’s players to occur. According to Cherundolo, the coaching is what happens in between games. Game management isn’t his duty. The players are adults and the games are when they have the chance to showcase their skills, their talents, their abilities and what they have learned throughout the process of training. His feedback however, comes swiftly and reliably. Ever wonder why those post-game media events take so much longer than the typical MLS ones?  

Cherundolo is doing his job. “He’s the first and only coach I had that addresses his talks to the team right after the game,” Ilie Sánchez explained after LAFC defeated Philadelphia Union in the second leg of the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) Semifinal series. “That gives us awareness and reflection on [how] we just performed on the field, and we can start working on the next training session right away. I think that being so quick and clever in what he wants for the team to execute and do on the field, it gives us kind of an advantage for the following games.”

While this sounds a touch robotic and harsh, it’s truly not. Because after that post-game locker room talk, Cherundolo allows and expects his team to recover in a very modern and American way. “I think recovering physically is important, but recovering mentally is more important than physically,” he proclaims.

A bit of that self-reflective, exacting but also empathetic nature is sinking into the culture of LAFC. The balanced results are speaking for themselves, which is great, because you’ll never catch him praising himself. While LAFC are on a tear in the CCL, with both Golden Boot (Dénis Bouanga) and Golden Glove (John McCarthy) on the horizon, well on their way to potentially their first international trophy, and though they are the last remaining unbeaten side in MLS, they are still two games behind the current Western conference leaders (Seattle Sounders), with more game postponements coming.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done. Not being happy with what we did tonight. There’s always room for improvement. It’s really about focusing on what’s next,” the pragmatic coach concludes.