For the first time since their inception, LAFC navigated a coaching search this offseason. A decision of this magnitude is crucial to a club's success, obviously, but Winter 2022 is especially transformational for the sun-kissed side.
The 2021 season was their first without making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, a campaign of false starts and frustrations. As the offseason got underway, a few key departures followed the theme of a roster overhaul. Just three core players remain from their record-setting 2019 side.
It's a new era for LAFC. And following an extensive search, they have a new leader on the sidelines after Steve Cherundolo was officially named head coach on Monday.
"We were looking for someone who would fit at LAFC, both for our playing style and his personal characteristics, how he interacts with people," LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com. "We wanted someone who could develop players to great effect, a coach we know our players will love playing for. Someone who understands the connection to our city, our supporters. For all that we know about Steve and what we predict will happen with Steve, he won out.”
Cherundolo retired from professional soccer in 2014, after spending his entire club career with Hannover 96 and appearing in over 400 games across all competitions for the German side. He helped them earn promotion to the Bundesliga ahead of the 2002-03 season and helped keep them there through his final season. This will be the 42-year-old's first foray as the head coach of a top-flight, senior club.
“Timing is everything," Cherundolo said. "Both sides need to be wanting the same thing at the same time, that doesn’t happen very often. I feel in my coaching career, I’ve taken deliberate steps towards this goal. Taking my time, learning this trade from the ground up. I feel very prepared and ready to go.”
Cherundolo's experience, following Bradley
Following retirement, Cherundolo immediately transitioned to coaching at Hannover, with their second and youth teams. Brief stints as an assistant with VfB Stuttgart and the US men's national team preluded a season with the German youth national team.
“He was an American who worked with Germany’s youth national teams," Thorrington said. "That speaks volumes that the German federation would hire an American to do that, so that tells us his specialty in youth development which is critical to our success.”
Cherundolo spent the 2021 season leading LAFC's USL Championship affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights. He holds a UEFA Pro License, the highest coaching certification in Europe.
Now, Cherundolo takes over the big job at an ambitious club after a legend departed. Now-Toronto FC head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley guided LAFC to immediate success, winning a Supporters' Shield in their second-ever season and making the Concacaf Champions League final in their third.
“This is just the evolution of a team, which is absolutely normal," Thorrington said. "Evolution is building on a foundation. We give credit to Bob for that and how do we improve on that? That’s Steve’s job.”
Cherundolo played for Bradley when he managed the national team from 2006-11, Cherundolo was a key player during that time. During his time with Las Vegas last year, he took the opportunity to maximize learning under Bradley.
“We’re similar, but also very different," Cherundolo said. "Bob is an incredible coach, has done incredible things, was very important to me in my career and someone I’ve learned from as a player and coach. We worked very closely, both staffs between Las Vegas and LAFC. I had the chance to pick his brain every day. … I think the world of him as a coach and person. They’re big shoes to fill, but it would be false to try to replace Bob. We’ll move in our direction, try to define this role a little differently.”
That spell at Las Vegas proved crucial. The technical staffs for LAFC and Vegas worked closely all year. Cherundolo got to be in the building, see how he fit. Thorrington and the club got to see him interact in their ecosystem, see how the fit looked.
“I understand where LAFC have been, what they’ve built and where we’re going," Cherundolo said. "From my experience, I think I can add to that. I think I can take this organization to the next step. One thing I’ve been extremely impressed with at LAFC is how good of an organization this is, from ownership to every employee. We all want the same thing: success for our fans.”
"I expect three or four additional moves"
Shortly after he was hired, Cherundolo had a conversation with superstar forward Carlos Vela.
Vela, who is entering the final year of his contract, has been oft-injured over the last two seasons following his MVP-winning 2019 campaign, the best individual run in league history. A fit and in-form Vela would be a great starting point to transition into a new era.
“There’s no need for him to prove himself, it’s just about finding the rhythm," Cherundolo said. "It’s up to us to surround Carlos with pieces that help him do what he does so well. We’re both excited, ready to go and committed to the season.”
One of Cherundolo's strengths as a coach is development. It's why the German federation hired him and part of why Thorrington appointed him in charge of Las Vegas, a largely developmental vehicle for LAFC. His best success story was Mamadou Fall, a Senegalese center back who arrived at 18 years old as a talented youngster. Fall spent the first half of the year under Cherundolo in Vegas before being ready to contribute for LAFC. Before long, he won a key role on LAFC's backline and started 16 games. Thorrington notes that clubs in Europe have certainly noticed his development.
“(Player development is) critical for success in MLS," Thorrington said. "All of your players need to improve, that’s true of senior players as well as young players. It’s not just the academy, it’s the young players from abroad. ... Our commitment to producing talent from Los Angeles is underway and we’re starting to scratch the surface on it, but it’s something we’re incredibly excited about. We have a fertile market and there’s nothing like a local kid playing for the first team. We’ve some examples of that of our first generation of academy graduates, but that’s a pipeline that will continue.”
The Black & Gold are working to replace the influence of Eduard Atuesta, Diego Rossi, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Tristan Blackmon, all of whom have departed since the summer. While larger roles for players on the roster are expected, veteran additions will certainly arrive. Two already have via trades: defender Franco Escobar and forward Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.
LAFC intend to utilize their vacant DP spot, which opened via Rossi's departure in September. And, of course, they're returning 2021 MLS Newcomer of the Year Cristian Arango.
“This is the reality of our business, and an intentional part of our business model is identifying young players and moving them on," Thorrington said. "For us, we’ve already added a few pieces we think will be incredibly helpful to the group as we build. … The additional conversations going on for further positions to bolster the squad all the way through a potential DP.”
Preseason opens in mid-January, while Cherundolo will make his MLS coaching debut in less than two months. If all goes well, he'll have another handful of players to choose from.
“We feel good about the group we have, but I expect three or four additional moves," Thorrington said.