Steve Cherundolo’s culture transformation has fueled LAFC

Steve Cherundolo’s face often twists into a crooked smile, somewhere between malicious and mischievous, as if he’s caught up in a prank nobody else knows about.

Maybe he is, because what he’s done this season, his first as an MLS manager, shouldn’t have been that easy. During the regular season, his LAFC team won 21 games, the most ever by a rookie coach; captured the Supporters’ Shield by finishing with the league’s best overall record; then routed Austin in the Western Conference title game.

On Saturday, during the MLS Cup Finals at Banc of California Stadium, a win over the Philadelphia Union would make him the second coach in more than a decade to lead his team to both a Supporters’ Shield and a league title in the same season led.

And there isn’t a player in the LAFC dressing room who isn’t sure who deserves credit for that.

“He brought out the best in all of us,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “He implemented his systems and tactics and I think as a group we embraced that.”

So while John Thorrington had what one rival called the best year as a general manager in league history, remodeling the lineup by adding six starters, it was Cherundolo who turned those additions into one team.

Cristian Arango had an MVP-worthy season, scoring a team-best 16 goals, and Canada international Maxime Crepeau had the best season of his career, conceding just 38 goals and nine shutouts, but it was Cherundolo who devised the system that allowed them to thrive.

“This is his team. This team has its identity,” said midfielder Ilie Sánchez. “Everything we do and everything we can achieve, we owe him.”

That wasn’t exactly what the fan base felt like last January, when LAFC appointed Cherundolo, a neophyte with just six wins as manager, to take over the hyper-experienced Bob Bradley, a two-time national team coach and the first American to take over management replace in the English Premier League.

“We were under attack,” said LAFC co-president Larry Freedman. “A lot of the fanbase thought we were going to hire some A+ caliber guy from the Premier League or something. But without exception, people in the global game, people Steve had played with, the people who really, really knew Steve and knew his career and path and who he was as a person, each of those messages was, “Congratulations, you’ve got a great one guy hired. He’s going to do great things.’”

The simple truth that cherundolo is not Bradley or another pedigreed coach was key to his success.

In his four years at LAFC, Bradley broke a season’s points record and led the team to a Supporters’ Shield, three playoff appearances and a CONCACAF Champions League final. But he did so with a no-nonsense, old-school style that emphasized discipline and detail.

Former LAFC defender Steven Beitashour said Bradley, 64, would even follow players into the team cafeteria and penalize those who didn’t fill their table properly.

“He sees everything,” said Beitashour.

That intensity waned over time, though, making the San Diego-raised Californian quiet of Cherundolo, 43, a welcome change. Captain Carlos Vela called the new coach “cool” and “positive” and said the team’s attitude was more relaxed, suggesting players no longer feel the pressure to be perfect; simply being successful is now acceptable.

It’s hard to imagine Bradley urging his players to have fun the way Cherundolo did ahead of Sunday’s conference finals.

“We are not talking about the midterm elections. We’re talking about the Western Conference Finals,” he said. “So yes, it should definitely be enjoyed. It’s a sport. If we can’t enjoy that, then I’m not sure what we can enjoy.”

That doesn’t mean he can’t get angry when the situation calls for it. When LAFC won just one of six games in August and September, thereby losing a chance to break Bradley’s one-season scoring record and nearly cost him home field advantage in the playoffs, Cherundolo changed his tune.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo congratulates the players celebrating after the goal.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo (right) congratulates the players who celebrate after scoring their side’s second goal against Inter Miami March 12 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

“It comes from a relaxed approach, but sometimes it really got inside of us. So he has this switch,” Acosta said.

“He’s a very calm person and he gives us the confidence and calm we need at this moment. But there were also some moments in the last half of the season when he was tough,” agreed Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, who has played for some of the world’s top coaches.

“He doesn’t speak that much, but everything he says is true. The whole team respects and loves him.”

LAFC assistant Ante Razov, who played and coached and played and coached under Bradley With Cherundolo, a teammate on the national team, said the move from a disciplinary to a more flexible approach is not uncommon.

“Different influence, different voice,” he said. “I think that’s part of the process.”

For Cherundolo, 43, that process began with the La Jolla Nomads, a youth soccer team with which he won six state titles. That led to two years at the University of Portland, 87 appearances in the national team, three World Cup selections and a professional career that he spent entirely in Germany, where he played 302 Bundesliga games for Hannover 96, met his wife, started a family and much more more began a coaching career.

“He has an education that I think is like he got his PhD from Stanford and got his pro [coaching] License in Germany,” said Thorrington, whose job it was to hire Cherundolo. “When we looked at what this group of players needed, we felt Steve was the right choice. And he proved that this decision was the right one.”

That’s largely because Thorrington, who has enjoyed an unprecedented year as general manager, has given him the pieces to thrive on. After watching LAFC stumble to a losing record and miss the playoffs for the first time last season, he overhauled the roster last winter. Mark-Anthony Kaye and Corey Baird’s midseason trades in 2021 netted the team $1.5 million in allotment funds, which Thorrington used to acquire Acosta and goaltender Maxime Crepeau.

In February he sent underused defender Marco Farfan to Dallas for Ryan Hollingshead, who was having the best season of his career, and then Thorrington landed in a remarkable series of summer acquisitions Chiellini, who guided Italy to a European Championship in 2021; Gareth Bale, five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid; and eliminated upset players-designate Diego Rossi and Brian Rodríguez, replacing them with Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello.

“You could argue that they just had the best transfer window anyone has ever had,” said Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey. “I truly believe that John is one of the best GMs in the league.”

But, Lagerwey added, it means nothing if LAFC doesn’t win on Saturday.

“The goal for all of us is clearly the MLS Cup,” he said. “They haven’t won that yet.” Steve Cherundolo’s culture transformation has fueled LAFC

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