LAFC enter the 2022 MLS season amid significant change, with a new head coach and (so far) five key offseason signings who all could be in the starting XI come a Feb. 26 home opener against the Colorado Rapids.
But their landmark acquisition from before playing an MLS game remains, and their fortunes could ride on his performance levels. That’s Carlos Vela, of course, the Black & Gold’s first-ever Designated Player who’s back after his contract option was exercised, ending a period of uncertainty and rumors of the 32-year-old Mexican star possibly departing.
And during Steve Cherunodolo’s early preseason days, he’s focused on getting the 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP back to peak levels. Vela recorded an astounding 34g/15a in 31 matches during that record-setting year, though has been limited to 9g/7a in 27 matches combined the last two seasons while battling injuries.
“It’s like riding a bike, it’s there. It’s just a matter of getting it back,” Cherundolo said on Extratime. “A huge portion of this is Carlos and he knows that. He knows what he can do, he knows his own potential, he knows what he did. And he understands how we want to play, so our relationship has gone very good. It’s a solid foundation.
“We both want the same things and he’s a team player. He wants to make this team better and he, from the first couple days of training, I can tell you he’s putting in the work as well.”
Steve Cherundolo on LAFC: "The expectations are the same"
The Cherundolo era, which follows four years of now-Toronto FC head coach/sporting director Bob Bradley at the helm, won’t solely be defined by Vela. But the left-footed forward can take over games and was vital to LAFC’s 2019 Supporters’ Shield-winning season, captaining the club and becoming a pillar of what’s developed at Banc of California Stadium.
Help could be on the way, too, since LAFC have an open DP spot after Diego Rossi’s move to Turkish Süper Lig club Fenerbahçe. They were linked to Uruguay international Jonathan Rodriguez as he departed Liga MX’s Cruz Azul, though he’s now at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassar. That leaves other options being kicked around.
“Definitely a wait-and-see,” Cherundolo said of the DP situation. “The market is the market and it’s always moving, constantly changing. We want to be very sure about what we do and so we are doing our homework, our due diligence. We are putting ourselves in position to find the best player at this moment in time for LAFC to help us win games. If that happens, wonderful. But if it doesn’t, we’ll wait until that time comes.”
Their other DP is 21-year-old Uruguay international Brian Rodriguez, a highlight of the Penarol-to-MLS wave. Reports of a loan to Brazil’s Internacional have surfaced this offseason, an exit that would follow last year’s half-season loan to Spanish second-division side UD Almeria. For now, Rodriguez remains with LAFC and part of Cherundolo’s plans.
“We expect great things from Brian, Brian expects great things from himself,” Cherundolo said. “He has a huge toolset and [is someone] I’m very excited to work with and help Brian progress his own career and also make this team better. That is our job, very simply put.”
Beyond the DP situations, LAFC have been remarkably active in the MLS trade market this offseason. They’ve landed Canada international goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (from Vancouver Whitecaps FC), United States international midfielder Kellyn Acosta (from Colorado Rapids), forward Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (from Charlotte FC via Expansion Draft) and defender Franco Escobar (from Atlanta United) – the moves totaling up to $3.5 million in General Allocation Money if all incentives are reached.
Another key addition is landing ex-Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sanchez in free agency, helping patch the departure of Eduard Atuesta via transfer to Brazil’s Palmeiras. All the while, Cherundolo said by the end of preseason they hope defender Eddie Segura can rejoin first-team training as his recovery from last year’s torn ACL continues.
The comings and goings are comprehensive, a new-look team where expectations remain high under Cherundolo. He led USL Championship affiliate Las Vegas Lights in 2021, and now is steering a top-flight club for the first time after a storied USMNT and German Bundesliga playing career that’s transitioned into the coaching ranks.
“The identity and the DNA of LAFC will remain,” Cherundolo said. “We will try to clean things up a little bit in certain moments of the game or try to improve I should say – better choice of words. But it will still be connected, it will be fast-flowing, it will be attractive. We want to score goals, we want to be on the front foot and not just sit back and defend. I think our fans will recognize what they see.”
For more from Cherundolo and Extratime, check out their latest show here.