LAFC is close to an MLS Cup title thanks to Steve Cherundolo’s balancing act

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Rookie head coach Steve Cherundolo and his LAFC team face Philadelphia Union in Saturday’s MLS Cup finals at the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Everyone knew 2022 would be a new era for LAFC, but for it to play out, it’s too perfect for even the best Hollywood producer to write a script.

In late 2021, the black-and-gold were without a head coach for about a month and a half after splitting from Bob Bradley. He was LAFC’s first skipper and responsible for creating a unique DNA that catapulted them to rapid success in Major League Soccer in a short span of time. But last season ended badly and the club missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

It was an inevitable end of the road in LA for the second-winning active coach in MLS history. And with his high expectations, the search for his successor continued.

But general manager John Thorrington had his man around all the time.

Appearance: Steve Cherundolo.

The former USA men’s international defender spent some time as an assistant coach in Germany, where his playing career also flourished. Last year he was on the sidelines as the coach of USL team Las Vegas Lights FC, affiliated with LAFC. That allowed Cherundolo to not only manage players who were also part of the MLS squad, but also brought him into the mix about what happened with the black and gold.

The time he spent at the Banc of California stadium or at the training ground added to his knowledge of the MLS club. When Thorrington wanted to fill that position as head coach, it was a no-brainer.

At least for him.

Others have criticized Cherundolo’s attitude as being lazy, a little lazy and maybe just not good. His first major appearance and he was tasked with taking on a team with championship ambitions. And then the pieces came together as the squad was augmented with veteran MLS players, then global names like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini. Meanwhile, LAFC has comfortably established itself as one of the best teams in the league.

The team’s 21 regular-season wins set an MLS mark for most rookie head coaches and propelled him to the finals for Coach of the Year.

“First and foremost, Steve deserves a lot of credit. I was quite disappointed that he didn’t win Coach of the Year after his performance in his freshman year,” said Kellyn Acosta. “After the records he’s broken and a good season overall, I thought he deserved more respect.”

The Philadelphia Union’s Jim Curtain accepted the award. But LAFC edged out Philly to win the Supporters’ Shield. Now the decisive blow will be the most important award of all – the MLS Cup.

Ask Cherundolo about it and he’ll quickly try to brush it aside. He’s not the type to talk about himself, but rather to give credit to his coaching staff and players. He emphasizes the importance of controlling his players’ emotions throughout the season and has mastered it when he’s the one in the spotlight.

“Managing players is a big part of that,” Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff said when asked about Cherundolo. “They have so many talented players and that becomes part of the process of how to keep these guys in a good space to perform. Steve was a fantastic player and he’s a very humble, great person.”

It’s easy to overlook his impact having to work with such a talented squad, but it actually boosts his CV. It’s welcome that a player like Carlos Vela, used to being the star, takes a step back and plays more of a mediating role without problems. At the beginning of the season, he wasn’t shy about Cristian “Chicho” Arango’s fights and criticized him a bit. Arango took the call and submitted a standout campaign that earned him an MVP finalist.

Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela holds up the trophy after defeating Austin FC in the final of the Western Conference MLS playoffs on Sunday, October 30, 2022 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)

Go through the list and he was able to keep this team balanced while allocating game time and everyone involved.

“I can’t thank Steve enough for everything he’s done for all of us,” Acosta said. “He implemented his systems and his tactics and I think as a group we went into it together and he got the best out of each individual player. I think Steve also comes from a relaxed approach, but sometimes he really got inside of us, so he has that switch.”

You won’t see that side of him, but it’s there and the message will be delivered when it’s needed.

“This is his team. This team has its identity,” said Ilie Sanchez. “Everything we can do and achieve will be primarily thanks to him. I am very happy and proud that he leads this team.”

His calm demeanor was a strong component of this LAFC run one win away from glory. It takes a win to accomplish what one of the greatest coaches in American football history failed to do.

Cherundolo’s playing career is extensive: spanning three separate World Cups, 87 USMNT appearances and the nickname “Mayor of Hannover” due to his tenure as longtime captain of German club Hannover 96.

He could soon be earning a new moniker as a beloved figure in Los Angeles, just a year into his tenure in MLS.

“We all want to win, but we especially love paying for him and we hope to do him proud by lifting that trophy on Saturday,” Acosta said.

If LAFC does indeed win the MLS Cup, Cherundolo will once again pass on his praise to his staff and everyone involved at the club.

It’s never about him. But in a way, this season was all about him.



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