LOS ANGELES – Steve Cherundolo, in his first year as an MLS head coach, has secured the two biggest domestic trophies available.
It’s quite the résumé he’s starting to amass, leading LAFC to their first-ever MLS Cup title Saturday after claiming the Supporters' Shield, and you could hardly blame the confidence he let surface at Banc of California Stadium.
“I felt very well prepared for this job, and I think maybe two titles speaks for itself,” said the first-year manager after his Black & Gold downed the Philadelphia Union, 3-0, on penalty kicks following a 3-3 draw entering best-of territory.
Amid the postgame celebrations, Gareth Bale’s late equalizer and John McCarthy’s shootout heroics, it’s perhaps easy to forget Cherundolo’s announced hiring back on Jan. 3 was met with some level of skepticism.
He spent the 2021 campaign leading the Las Vegas Lights, LAFC’s USL Championship affiliate, amassing a not-so-flattering record. A second-division developmental squad in some respects, they’d won just six of 32 games under Cherundolo’s leadership – not quite the record you’d expect to follow now-Toronto FC head coach Bob Bradley, LAFC’s inaugural manager who spent 2018-21 steering an expansion path before a mutually agreed-upon departure.
But LAFC believed Cherundolo was their guy, giving the 43-year-old a chance to prove himself in MLS. He’s passed the initial tests with flying colors.
“I was able to convince the right people to give me a shot,” Cherundolo said, “and I think they are happy with their decision now.”
The directness of Cherundolo’s dealings with the press is perhaps a nod to his amassing more than 15 years of playing experience in Germany’s first and second divisions. The San Diego, California-area native never played domestically, and is affectionally known as the “Mayor of Hannover” – a recognition of his legendary status and Bundesliga appearances record held at Hannover 96.
After retiring in 2014, Cherundolo’s first forays into coaching came in Deutschland as well. Assistant gigs at Hannover and VfB Stuttgart were among the stops, as was a period in the German youth national team system. A distinguished right back who made three World Cup rosters with the United States (2002, '06, '10), life could have remained overseas.
But an opportunity with LAFC’s organization came calling, and he’s turned them into the first Cup-Supporters’ Shield double winners since Toronto FC accomplished that feat in 2017. Cherundolo expected no less.
“For me, the goal is always to maximize the potential of this group, and anything short of a Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup for this group with this mentality wouldn't have been enough,” said Cherundolo.
“I think it’s a job, I can say for myself and the rest of the coaching staff, a job well done. We've done our job. We've done what we were here to do by maximizing the potential of this group.”
It’s almost become cliché, all season long, hearing Cherundolo discuss ad nauseam how desperately LAFC’s star-studded roster wanted to win everything possible – from a simple training exercise to the league’s biggest prize. But maybe that’s why they’re the last ones standing in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, navigating a roster that lost several MLS-proven pieces this summer in favor of European veterans like Bale, Giorgio Chiellini, Cristian Tello and Denis Bouanga.
Ultimately, Cherundolo finished third in Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year voting – and his body of work even drew ample praise from the year-end award’s winner.
“He deserves a ton of credit for what he did. He's an incredible coach,” Union manager Jim Curtin said in his matchday-1 availability.
“I think more importantly, also, just in the brief encounters and talking time that I've had with him, he's a great person, which in this game is, I'll just say, a dying breed – normal, good people have success and can be done that way.”
Throughout MLS Cup week, Cherundolo expressed surprise at being in this situation.
“Two years ago I was in cold Burgwedel, just outside of Hanover, mowing my lawn,” he said in Friday’s preview presser.
He returned to a similar theme after beating Philadelphia: “This business as a coach or as a player is not plannable. Things happen. You need to be ready for them. The worst thing you can do as a coach is jump into a situation you're not prepared for.”
Cherundolo’s managerial savvy surfaced against the Union, too, especially when goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was injured and retroactively red-carded after a Video Review decision. He said they opted to keep on LAFC’s “larger-stature players” when the team was reduced to 10 men, hoping for set-piece and cross-generated chances – a decision Bale rewarded with his 128th-minute towering header.
The end result is, for a club only five competitive years old, LAFC’s second Shield in four seasons and their first-ever MLS Cup. Cherundolo’s 21 regular-season victories set a new MLS record for most wins by a first-year head coach, and now he’s got the postseason plaudits as a cherry on top.
The magnitude of all this will settle in eventually.
“What it means to me, I'm not sure yet,” Cherundolo said. “I think I need a few days to process.”