LAFC on the brink of an MLS Cup title thanks to Steve Cherundolo's balancing act

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - MARCH 12: Ismael Tajouri #19 of Los Angeles FC celebrates with Ryan Hollingshead #24 and head coach Steve Cherundolo after scoring a goal against Inter Miami CF during the second half at DRV PNK Stadium on March 12, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Rookie head coach Steve Cherundolo and his LAFC squad face the Philadelphia Union on Saturday in the MLS Cup final at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) (Michael Reaves via Getty Images)

Everybody knew 2022 was going to be a new era for LAFC, but for it to play out the way it has is even too perfect for the best Hollywood producer to script.

For about a month and a half at the end of 2021, the Black and Gold were without a head coach after parting ways with Bob Bradley. He was LAFC's first skipper and responsible for creating a unique DNA that catapulted them to rapid Major League Soccer success in a short time. But that last season ended poorly and the club missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

It was an inevitable end of the road in L.A. for the second-winningest active coach in MLS history. And with those high expectations he set, the search was on for who was going to be his successor.

But general manager John Thorrington had his guy close all along.

Enter: Steve Cherundolo.

The former U.S. men’s national team defender spent some time as an assistant coach in Germany where his playing career also flourished. Last year he was on the sidelines coaching USL side Las Vegas Lights FC, which is affiliated with LAFC. That allowed Cherundolo to not only manage players that were also part of the MLS roster, but it also put him in the mix about the happenings with the Black and Gold.

Time spent at Banc of California Stadium or at the training grounds were all adding to his knowledge of the MLS club. So when Thorrington was looking to fill that head coaching vacancy, it was a no-brainer.

To him, at least.

Others criticized Cherundolo's hire for being convenient, somewhat lazy and perhaps just not good. His first major gig and he was tasked with taking over a team with championship aspirations. And then the pieces started falling into place as the roster was supplemented with veteran MLS players, then global names like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini. All while LAFC 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 by a rookie head coach and landed him as a Coach of the Year finalist.

“First and foremost, Steve deserves a lot of credit. I was rather disappointed for him not winning Coach of the Year from what he’s done in his first year,” said Kellyn Acosta. “From the records that he’s broken and overall after a good season, I thought he deserved more respect.”

Philadelphia Union’s Jim Curtain ended up taking the award. But LAFC edged Philly out to win the Supporters’ Shield. Now the deciding blow will be the most important accolade of them all — MLS Cup.

Ask Cherundolo about any of this and he’ll quickly try to brush it aside. He isn’t the type to talk about himself, instead dishing out credit to his coaching staff and players. Harping on the importance of managing his players' emotions all season, he masters it when he’s the one in the spotlight.

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

It’s easy to overlook his impact because of how talented of a roster he has to work with, but that actually boosts his résumé. Being able to have a player like Carlos Vela, who was used to being the star, take a step back and play more of a facilitator role without an issue is applaudable. Earlier in the season he wasn’t shy about Cristian “Chicho” Arango’s struggles and criticized him a bit. Arango answered the call and turned in a stellar campaign that landed him as an MVP finalist.

Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela holds up the cup after defeating Austin FC in the MLS playoff Western Conference final soccer match Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)
Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela holds up the cup after defeating Austin FC in the MLS playoff Western Conference final soccer match Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Go down the list and he’s been able to keep this team balanced while spreading out playing time and keeping everyone involved.

“I can’t thank Steve enough for all he’s done for all of us,” Acosta said. "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 single player. I think Steve also comes from a laid-back approach but there’s some times he’s really gotten into us. So he has that switch.”

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

“This is his team. This team has his identity,” said Ilie Sanchez. “Everything that we do and that we can achieve, it’s going to be because of him in the first place. Very happy and proud of having him lead this team.”

His calm demeanor has been a strong component to this LAFC run that’s a win away from glory. A win away from accomplishing something one of the most decorated coaches in American soccer history couldn’t.

Cherundolo’s career as a player is extensive: it includes three different World Cups, 87 USMNT appearances and the “Mayor of Hannover” moniker due to his tenure as longtime captain of German side Hannover 96.

Soon he might be earning a new nickname as a beloved figure in Los Angeles just a year into his MLS tenure.

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

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

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