LAFC's marathon season reaches "defining match" at MLS Cup 


COLUMBUS, Ohio – “Grueling.”



“Really crazy.”

As a marathon season barrels towards its final chapter, you can feel the weight, distance and toll of LAFC’s 2023 in the words their players use to describe it. There are also ample numerical metrics to drive home just how long it’s lasted, how much physical toil it demanded from them, how much mental strain its highs and lows imposed.

“Honestly, it was tough, because in the end you know how here in MLS the teams are not big enough to play multiple tournaments,” captain Carlos Vela told reporters on Thursday. “We travel a lot; the distance, the timing, everything is really crazy. So for us to be focusing every single game was tough, because in the end, when you are playing tournaments, you are losing, but you want to still win, so it's a lot of emotion at the same time. And you are tired physically, but mentally you want but sometimes you can’t. So it's a real battle with yourself.”

No rest for the weary

The club calculates the squad has traveled 62,784 miles, crisscrossing the continent from Costa Rica to Charlotte to Philadelphia (twice) to Canada (also twice) in addition to the usual lengthy road trips across the West, and finally now to Columbus for Saturday’s MLS Cup final at Field (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).

“It was a very long year for everyone,” winger Cristian Olivera said in Spanish on Friday. “This is a defining match that makes all the previous matches worth it.”

No MLS team has ever played as many matches as the 53 the Black & Gold will have contested this season across MLS, Concacaf Champions League, US Open Cup, Leagues Cup, Campeones Cup and Audi MLS Cup Playoffs action.

That’s a 30% increase over the 40 they played on their road to the 2022 MLS Cup title – even before one attempts to account for the emotional weight of reaching the CCL final and losing to Club León. Of falling to Tigres UANL on penalty kicks in Campeones Cup. Of losing an agonizing Leagues Cup quarterfinal to another Liga MX giant, Monterrey, after taking a 2-0 lead into halftime. Or having little choice but to feature a lineup heavy with reserves and second-team players in an Open Cup El Tráfico clash with crosstown rivals LA Galaxy, who duly produced one of the few highlights of their largely woeful campaign by beating LAFC 2-0 at their BMO Stadium home.

“It has been a long one,” said head coach Steve Cherundolo in Friday’s matchday-1 press conference. “It's been a lot of work. At times, felt like an impossible task we were put through. But that has made us stronger, and that is a source of our motivation to get here and now to win.”

Cherundolo himself is no small part of the resilience produced to persevere to this point despite so much heartbreak, a steady hand at the helm in stormy times despite it being only his second season as a top-flight head coach.

“I was positively surprised about Steve,” said veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini. “I think that his best quality is to maintain the balance in every moment of the game, and in every moment of the season. This is one very good thing and he is very able to read the game. He is a person that understands the moment, understands when he has to raise up our focus, or he could leave us a little bit lighter, because we are so heavy for other things, other games.

“I think it is a very huge quality, this understanding of the situation and the level of pressure on the team. Tactically he has a clear idea. We are training on that and when we have time to train it, I think we could see also much better during the game.”


While last year’s champions still bore many hallmarks of his predecessor Bob Bradley and his proactive possession philosophy, this team is now unquestionably Cherundolo’s. Their defensive organization and efficiency on the counterattack reflect a profound pragmatism which has simplified matters for his players amid so much adversity and a constant litany of games.

“Steve is really a player's coach. where everybody respects him, and he's been in our shoes not so long ago as well,” said goalkeeper Max Crépeau before LAFC’s final pre-Cup training session on Friday. “So he can relate to multiple things, especially on communication, where he's been there not so long ago and we're right there as well. So Steve is really good and our staff as well, at pointing when we can do better and what we're good at and to really put emphasis on this.”

Cherundolo, 44, explains it as a natural product of his own experiences as a player. A cerebral, reliable fullback, he left the University of Portland early to make his name at Hannover 96, where he eventually made more than 300 appearances, becoming a club icon in addition to earning 87 caps and playing in two World Cups with the US men’s national team.

“The psychology is moving to Germany when you’re 19 on your own, and going through some difficult moments in your own career,” he said. “The German mentality is pretty straightforward: After losses, put your head down and start working. And that has been instilled upon me in my career as a player, my club days, and I think hard work goes a long way. And I really think trying to forget what just happened to focus on the next task at hand is something I try to do, and lead by example.

“I will not talk about games for too long. We try not to do that at LAFC, and review video too much from what happened in the past. We're always moving forward and trying to get better. I’m very thankful that the players bought into that and continue to do. For me, I think that's the only way you can survive in this business for that long. You just can't stop moving forward, and we do that.”

His quiet tenacity appears to be contagious. Reminiscent of the famous Steven Gerrard phrase that grew into a rallying cry at Liverpool – “we go again” – LAFC persist.

“The secret is to make it happen, find a way,” said Crépeau. “And so we find a way until here today, and we will keep on going until tomorrow.”

Those in and around the team also point to a strong team chemistry, a collective spirit fired in the crucible of the big moments they’ve lived together, and a wider organizational commitment to success that helps players and coaches focus on their task.

“They let their players worry about being on the field and they take care of everything else,” said Columbus striker Christian Ramírez, a Southern California native and former LAFC favorite who revealed he’s kept an eye on his old club, even when thousands of miles away at Scottish side Aberdeen. “John Thorrington and crew have done a fantastic job to make that possible, because it's all good when you just say stuff, but they've actually done it from top to bottom. So yeah, they’re first class.”

Both Cherundolo and Thorrington, LAFC’s co-president and general manager, have expressed frustration with MLS roster regulations that they believe limit the ability of clubs to compete on multiple fronts and manage the marathon seasons that this entails. Yet as Ramírez pointed out, they’ve arrived at the final hurdle with limited injury losses or worries, a sign of adept load management and squad building.

Making a deep run in CCL in the spring has repeatedly wrecked entire seasons for MLS clubs, let alone losing a final in gutting fashion, and LAFC did indeed shuffle through a hangover period of mediocre form afterwards. But they regained course and eventually produced the best results any MLS side has ever had after reaching the CCL semifinals or final.

“It has been grueling at times,” Thorrington told’s Jonathan Sigal earlier this week. “Dealing with disappointment during a season is really hard. I think normally if you lose a final and you have a hard time, it is oftentimes at the end of a season. But the fact that this group has shown the resolve to recover from and withstand a season unlike any season that any team has ever had in our league, just speaks volumes about the character of this group. Now seeing them come together in such a strong way when it really counts, when it's all on the line is incredibly gratifying to see.”

End of an era?

That resolve to dig out one more win and defend their title is further girded by the knowledge that the team could change significantly this winter, with Vela, Crépeau and others out of contract, Chiellini mulling retirement and others possibly being sold on the transfer market.

Wryly noting that, “if you want, you can not touch a ball for one month” after Saturday, Vela called on his teammates to go again just once more, together.

“Honestly, I'm proud of what we did all season. Because we lost multiple finals, we are here in the final again,” he said. “We lost a lot of chances. We lost a lot of finals, and this is the last one of the year. This is the last one maybe for this group. So we know how important it is for us and we want to enjoy it. The most important part is to enjoy it, do your best, and that’s it. If they play better than you, they beat you, OK, congratulations to them. But we have to do our job and our part, and we'll see what happens.”