Steve Cherundolo’s cultural transformation fueled LAFC

Steve Cherundolo’s face often curves into a wry smile, somewhere between malevolent and mischievous, as if he’s playing some prank no one else knows.

Maybe he is, because what he’s done this season, his first as MLS manager, isn’t supposed to be that easy. During the regular season, his LAFC team won 21 games, most by a rookie coach; won the Supporters’ Shield by finishing with the league’s best overall record; then routed Austin in the Western Conference title game.

In Saturday’s MLS Cup Final at Banc of California Stadium, a victory over the Philadelphia Union would make him the second manager in more than a decade to lead his team to both a fan shield and a a league title in the same season.

And there’s not a player in the LAFC locker room who doesn’t know who deserves the credit for that.

“He brought the best out of all of us,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “He implemented his systems and his tactics and I think as a group we bought into that.”

So while John Thorrington had what one rival called the best year for any general manager in league history, redoing the roster by adding six starters, it was Cherundolo who turned those additions into a team. .

Cristian Arango had an MVP-worthy season, scoring a team-high 16 goals, and Canada international Maxime Crepeau had a career-best season, conceding just 38 goals and posting nine shutouts, but it’s Cherundolo who designed the system that allowed them to thrive.

“It’s his team. This team has its identity,” midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “Everything we do and can achieve is thanks to him.”

That wasn’t necessarily the sentiment among fans last January when LAFC named Cherundolo, a neophyte with just six lifetime wins as a manager, to replace hyper-experienced national team coach Bob Bradley. twice and the first American to manage in the English Premier League.

“We were under attack,” LAFC co-chairman Larry Freedman said. “A lot of the fans thought we were going to get an A-plus caliber guy from the Premier League or something. But without exception, people in the world game, people Steve had played with, people who really knew , really Steve and had intimate knowledge of his career and his journey and him as a human, each of those messages was, “Congrats, you’ve hired an amazing guy. He’s going to do great things.”

The simple truth that Cherundolo is not Bradley or another breed trainer was key to his success.

During his four years at LAFC, Bradley broke the single-season points record and led the team to one Fan Shield, three playoff appearances and one CONCACAF Champions League Final. But he did it with an old-school, no-frills style that emphasized discipline and detail.

Former LAFC defender Steven Beitashour said the 64-year-old Bradley would even follow players into the team cafeteria and chastise those who didn’t take their table properly.

“He sees everything,” Beitashour said.

That intensity has faded over time, however, making the California calm of Cherundolo, 43, who grew up in San Diego, a welcome change. Captain Carlos Vela called the new manager “cool” and “positive” and said the attitude around the squad was more relaxed, suggesting players no longer feel pressure to be perfect; simply succeeding is now acceptable.

It’s hard to imagine Bradley urging his players to have fun, like Cherundolo did ahead of Sunday’s conference final.

“We are not talking about the midterm elections. We’re talking about the Western Conference Finals,” he said. “So yes, it is absolutely necessary to take advantage of it. It is a sport. If we can’t enjoy that, then I don’t know what we can enjoy.

Which doesn’t mean he can’t get angry if the situation calls for it. When LAFC struggled through a streak where it won just one of six games in August and September, costing it a chance to break Bradley’s single-season points record and nearly costing him the home advantage in the playoffs, Cherundolo changed his tune.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, right, congratulates the players as they celebrate after scoring their team’s second goal against Inter Miami March 12 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

(Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

“He comes from a laid-back approach, but there were times when he really got a hold of us. So he has that switch,” Acosta said.

“He’s a very calm person and he gives us the confidence and the calmness that we need at the moment. But there were also times during the last part of the season when he was tough,” he said. recognized Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, who played for some of the best coaches in the world.

“He doesn’t talk much but everything he says is true. The whole team respects and loves him.

LAFC assistant Ante Razov, who played and coached under Bradley and played and coached with Cherundolo, a national team mate, said the transition from a disciplinary approach to a more flexible approach is not unusual.

“Different influence, different voice,” he said. “I think it’s part of the process.”

For Cherundolo, 43, that process began with the La Jolla Nomads, a youth soccer club with which he won six state titles. This led to two years at the University of Portland, 87 national team appearances, three World Cup caps and a professional career spent entirely in Germany, where he made 302 Bundesliga appearances for Hannover 96, met his wife, raised a family and embarked on a coaching career.

“He has an education that I would say is like having a doctorate from Stanford, getting his pro [coaching] license in Germany,” said Thorrington, whose call was to hire Cherundolo. “When we looked at what this group of players needed, we thought Steve was the right choice. And he proved that decision was right.

That’s largely because Thorrington, who has had an unprecedented year as GM, has given him the building blocks to succeed. After watching LAFC stumble on a losing record and miss the playoffs for the first time last season, it overhauled the roster last winter. Mark-Anthony Kaye and Corey Baird’s midseason trades in 2021 netted the team $1.5 million in stipend money, which Thorrington used to acquire Acosta and goaltender Maxime Crepeau.

In February, he sent underused defender Marco Farfan to Dallas for Ryan Hollingshead, who had the best season of his career, and then in a remarkable run of summer acquisitions, Thorrington landed Chiellini, Italy captain for a European Championship in 2021; Gareth Bale, five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid; and eliminated disgruntled designated players Diego Rossi and Brian Rodríguez, replacing them with Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello.

“You could say they had the best transfer window we’ve ever had,” Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “I really think John is one of the best GMs in the league.”

But, Lagerwey added, that means nothing if LAFC doesn’t win on Saturday.

“The goal for all of us is very clearly the MLS Cup,” he said. “They haven’t won that yet.”

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