‘The benchmark is to win’: Steve Cherundolo finds early success with LAFC through pragmatism


It’s the 38th minute at Banc of California Stadium, and Los Angeles FC has conceded the opening goal to Sporting Kansas City.

This is a growing trend that the team is trying to remedy as all seven of the goals LAFC has conceded thus far in 2022 have come in the opening 45 minutes. Watch enough soccer and you’ll know what the script asks of the coach for a team who has allowed a goal: wild gesticulation, dramatically pointing across the field at zones missed with the precision of Jackson Pollock, with cries for focus and execution of their vision.

Steve Cherundolo, however, keeps his cool. He remains in his chair outside of the technical area and takes advice from his assistants on either side — Ante Razov to his left, Marc Dos Santos to the right — before jotting down the takeaways in his plain black Moleskine Classic notebook. 

Six minutes later, Cristian Arango knocks a close-range header into the back of the net. After a nod of his head, Cherundolo turns from his standing post in the technical area toward his staff and the players on the bench and calmly presses downward with both hands.

“Relax,” the gesture implies. While it’s in response to remedying the early deficit, it doubles as an early assessment of the impressive start to the Cherundolo era. “LAFC is going to be just fine.”

This was a pivotal match for the team in the aftermath of its first loss of the season. The 2-1 defeat came at the hands of the Los Angeles Galaxy in the season’s first El Tráfico, doubling as Cherundolo’s first loss in MLS. After the final whistle, he referred to the second half as the team’s best 45 minutes of the young season, with just three momentary lapses to blame for the Galaxy’s two tallies. 

The game ended with the clock showing 100:34 — 154 seconds beyond the anticipated eight minutes of stoppage time. Still, the players weren’t ready to hit the showers, with several gathering near the officials. MLS would fine LAFC for a violation of the league’s mass confrontation policy, while Cherundolo would pick up his own fine as it was the club’s second such infraction of the year. To coach and team alike, it was all part of what’s supposed to be one of the league’s most competitive rivalries. 

“It definitely lives up to its reputation,” Cherundolo says with a raise of his eyebrows as he reclines in his chair after training. “All of the emotions boiling over here and there, that’s all part of the game. And look: if we don’t have that, what are we doing? This is why I always get frustrated with officiating, and then MLS handing out some fines afterwards. Do you want us to be emotional? You want to sell tickets, you want to see the stadium is full, but then you fine us for doing that? I’m not really quite understanding that messaging, because there’s no way I’m ever going to put a referee in danger.”

Despite cementing his place in the pantheon of great American players on the back of his 87 caps between 1999 and 2012, this is the 43-year-old Cherundolo’s first involvement in the MLS ecosystem at any level. The right back joined Hannover 96 in Germany after two years at the University of Portland, working into the first team quickly and staying with the club for his entire 16-year playing career. But don’t expect him to try turning LAFC into the Hannover of the west. “My career is absolutely irrelevant to what we’re doing here,” he said.

For one thing, the “Mayor of Hannover” didn’t have to deal with the MLS Disciplinary Committee as a player.

“Other than (the post-altercation fines), it’s great,” Cherundolo said of the rivalry match. “If you would have told me when I was a kid that I could go to the stadium during a derby weekend and watch a game like this and feel those emotions and see what I saw? Wow. There’s no way I would have gone to Europe. Everything I need is right there.”

Cherundolo watches the action between LAFC and Sporting KC. (Jeff Rueter)

It’s a specular Friday morning in Los Angeles as LAFC trains at its performance center on the Cal State LA campus. The building features many open-air exit points toward the training field — the weight room, players’ lounge and media alcove each have three permanent walls, with the optional fourth each lifted high to welcome in the occasional California breeze.

Today’s training session is tailored to focus on those momentary lapses from the past week. Cherundolo stands behind the defensive line as an attacking squad attempts to break them down. After Javier Hernández headed home the opener at the far post, the coaches orchestrate similar sequences until the aerial reads and clearances become second nature. The drill also aims to force the backline to not retreat from its desired high line of confrontation.

Cherundolo is one of the two main voices for the defensive faction, alongside Dos Santos. This is the latter’s second stint with LAFC, having served in the same role for Bob Bradley in the club’s inaugural season. He left after one year to take over as the Vancouver Whitecaps’ head coach until his dismissal last summer. 

Theoretically, one would understand if a first-time MLS head coach didn’t want someone else more experienced in that particular role on their staff. Cherundolo said he has no such concerns, though. The pair discussed their respective career aspirations as well as their vision for LAFC and, within minutes, Cherundolo was convinced that Dos Santos could play a crucial role. To him, the former Vancouver manager is a kindred spirit who prioritizes the scope of the project to the job title itself.

“Whether I’m a head coach or an assistant coach, I personally don’t care,” Cherundolo said. “I do not need, for my own ego, to be a head coach. I can just as easily work as an assistant tomorrow. The most important thing for me, and I know for Marc, is that the people involved are good people and that I would still be learning in this situation and progressing and helping an organization. If I feel needed, wanted, and I am still progressing my own knowledge and my own style, then that’s the right place for me.”

Dos Santos joins Cherundolo in organizing the defense, while the attacking instruction is handled by fellow ex-U.S. international Ante Razov. One of MLS’ all-time top scorers, Razov was crucial to helping LAFC establish its showtime identity under Bradley, having proven he can unlock the best in Carlos Vela and the rest of his goalscoring counterparts. Oka Nikolov rounds out the coaching staff, serving as both an assistant and goalkeeper coach after years spent with Philadelphia, the Galaxy, D.C., and the Germany youth national teams. In total, the staff can speak Croatian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, German and French with its players. (“There isn’t a whole lot we don’t cover.”)

Razov and Dos Santos’ experience under Bradley is also helpful. While newly appointed coaches often relish the ability to imprint their vision onto a club, that isn’t the case for LAFC. Perhaps taking a lesson after the failed attempt at a culture shift by fellow ambitious expansion team Atlanta United, the club looked for continuity. Through his previous role with the USL affiliate, Cherundolo was at the training ground almost every day. He had considerable history with Bradley, both from his coaching time and an international career which included Bradley trusting Cherundolo for all 390 minutes of the World Cup run in 2010.

After Bradley left to take over Toronto FC, Cherundolo brought fresh ideas to stabilize the team in all phases of play while incorporating perspective from his years playing and coaching in Germany. It’s not like the team needed to hit the reset button, either. The underlying numbers loved LAFC in 2021, with their +0.63 xGD/90 more than doubling the second-best expected goal differential in the West (Seattle, +0.31). Rather than fixing a system that wasn’t broken, Cherundolo represented a chance to stabilize the team a bit.

“If you look at the style and the success that LAFC had in the first four years, it was great,” Cherundolo said. “I think I would be pretty naive to try to change all that. It was very clear with the owners and the board and (co-president and general manager) John (Thorrington): let’s keep the good and let’s try to fix what wasn’t so great last season. I need Ante for that. I think we need Marc from Vancouver. Oka and I share a past history in Germany and have a very similar way of viewing coaching the game. I think this puts us in a really good spot and that these are the players we need to be able to do that. 

“Keep our DNA at LAFC with playing fast, playing aggressive, creating chances. What I bring to the table is less volatility and more stability on the defensive side — at the same time wanting to be more pragmatic, but result-oriented.”

The pragmatism has been on display through the season’s first seven matches, with a +0.92 xGD/90 that’s once again best in the West. The offseason acquisitions have only helped fortify the team: U.S. international Kellyn Acosta (formerly of the Colorado Rapids), veteran defensive midfielder Ilie Sánchez (Sporting Kansas City), attacker Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (New York City FC via Charlotte FC), fullback Ryan Hollingshead (FC Dallas) and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (Vancouver).  

These five additions each bring considerable MLS experience to the team, helping abbreviate the learning curves which Cherundolo has in front of him. As much as it’s now Cherundolo’s team, it’s impossible to separate LAFC’s identity from its first coach. To Cherundolo, that isn’t an unmanageable burden.

“I think the reality is that it is a benchmark, and so I have to accept that — and we do,” Cherundolo said. “As much as I’d love to form it my own way to make it as easy as possible, I can’t. The benchmark is, and the expectations are, to win. That’s how we go about working. I don’t see that as a burden alone; pressure has been a part of my life as far as I remember, so I’m good with that. Pressure is nothing more than just an idea. I don’t really think it should change the way we work or make decisions. In some ways, (pressure) is made up or superficial. It’s just an idea. If you don’t think about it, it’s not there. It’s not like it’s an actual thing. If you believe in it, it can hurt you.” 

In the match against Sporting KC, Cherundolo put his philosophy on pressure to the test. 

Vela was back at his usual post on the right after spending four of the first six matches at striker. But this wasn’t a panicked reversion. 

“I’m truly not concerned where they are: left, right, middle,” Cherundolo said of his attackers. “My concern is that we are getting in behind the opponent’s backline. We definitely need verticality in our game. Somebody has to run in behind; who that is, I’m not too concerned. Making defenders make decisions is the first objective. The second objective is then to get the ball where they are and to score goals, but creating spaces by making defenders make decisions is the first objective. To do that, you need this run and this run — and they’re better when they are coordinated.”

Elsewhere, Mamadou Fall represents an early case study of Cherundolo’s expertise with young players. Before the coach arrived at Las Vegas, he had spent years working in both the senior and youth ranks at Hannover 96, VfB Stuttgart, and the German and U.S. national team programs. Midway through his one season with the Lights, LAFC signed Fall, then an 18-year-old from the Soccer Institute of Montverde Academy in Orlando, Florida. He made eight USL appearances in 2021 along with 19 for the first team. 

In the early goings of this season, he’s become a staple of Cherundolo’s side. Full of confidence and consistent throughout the 90 minutes, Fall made MLS’ team of the week for that day’s efforts despite not scoring a goal — a rare occurrence. 

“​​I understand developmental football and how to coach it very well,” Cherundolo said. “I understand result-oriented — or the finished game, as I put it — as well, as it’s been a big part of my life. They are different jobs and they take a different skill set. I think it’s very important to separate those two. You can’t step into this environment and coach them like a youth team with the grand idea of trying to make everybody better and to improve — and then still get results sometimes. That’s not gonna work. It’s a different methodology, different time allocation for certain moments and the communication to players becomes different.”

If Fall represents his mentorship in action, then Sánchez is an embodiment of his ability to work with veterans.Facing his former club for the first time, the Spanish midfielder dropped deep between the center backs whenever Ecuador international left back Diego Palacios joined the attack. 

Between Sánchez and Acosta, LAFC have plenty of string-pullers in the midfield. It allows for any of the team’s many attacking threats to get behind the Kansas City backline as Cherundolo expects.

“Another principle (of ours): you go to come and then you come to go,” Cherundolo said, “meaning if I want the ball deep, I’m going to check first and then go. You’re communicating with the player on the ball: ‘Hey, this is where I want it, and this is the space I’m going to expose.’ That little bit of communication is a trained principle or habit, and not a rule that you would have a coordinated play. That little bit of communication is telling the entire team what is happening; now the far-sided player on the field knows they’re going deep in a minute, so I have to move now towards goal because a cross is coming.That little bit of communication or habit, however you want to call it, is very important to me.”

As the second half kicks off, it’s clear that LAFC wants to carry its momentum from Arango’s goal. Kansas City isn’t looking to give an inch, however, making hard challenges like a 48th minute tackle on Arango which center official Armando Villarreal deems isn’t a foul. 

As Villarreal wags his finger to deny Arango retribution, Cherundolo’s seemingly unflappable poker face breaks. The coach disagrees with this assessment and spikes his water bottle. The cap flies off and water douses the far side of his technical area, an offense which earns the coach what appears to be his first yellow card since hanging up his boots. Dos Santos enters the technical area to pull Cherundolo away from an extended discussion with Villarreal and fourth official Victor Rivas about his booking, while a trainer hands Cherundolo a fresh water bottle with a one-liner that draws a smile from the coach.

Two minutes later, Cherundolo is leaning against the wall behind his bench when Diego Palacios is shown a yellow card of his own. All the coach can mutter is “of course,” paired with a shake of his head and folded arms.

While the challenge may not have warranted a card, it’s another sign of the drive that Palacios and many of his teammates have in a World Cup year. The Ecuador international is one of five players who were called into the March qualifying window, alongside Acosta (United States), Jose Cifuentes (Ecuador), Crépeau and Doneill Henry (Canada). All three nations qualified for the tournament on the other side of this MLS season, giving Cherundolo — himself a veteran of three World Cups — little reason to worry about performance levels dropping.

“It’s easier this year because the stakes are really high for players,” Cherundolo said. “There are no issues with the lulls in performances. I don’t need to push players; yes, there could be formational issues but everybody on the planet wants to perform well in the next six months. The only thing that could come about is World Cup-itis where guys get a little too nervous or cautious and don’t want to get injured…which is exactly how you get yourself injured. That’s the only thing that I would look out for, but our players who are in consideration to become part of World Cup rosters are fine with all that and mentally very strong.”

Carrying on with a yellow card, Palacios is able to catalyze the breakthrough in the 70th minute when Tajouri-Shradi connects for a sublime finish just four minutes after coming off the bench. 

That would deservedly win MLS goal of the week. A team staffer would remark that this is likely one of the “two or three best goals in club history” — no small praise considering how many goals this team has fit into its first four-plus seasons. Cherundolo’s reaction is measured but enthusiastic, beaming with a wide smile and applauding both the scorer and the server as he settles back into his usual calmness. 

Ten minutes later, Cifuentes puts the final touches on a 3-1 win with a confident approach into the box as he exploits the uncharacteristic lack of midfield pressing from a Peter Vermes side, slotting a shot past Melia. 

With the result seemingly sealed, the two teams get into a confrontation over a foul. Perhaps learning from the two fines, Cherundolo implores his players to use their better judgment and not jeopardize the result… although, within minutes, he is gesturing in disagreement over a called foul on a 50/50 challenge. Despite the 3-1 score, Cherundolo spends most of the final moments pacing through his technical area with the single-minded focus of a man who’s been waiting at the DMV for hours. 

Once the final whistle sounds, Cherundolo shakes hands with Vermes before joining his players on the field with his two daughters by his side. 

Bradley may no longer be around, but LAFC is still recognizable. Cherundolo’s enthusiasm for coaching defenses has helped stabilize a team that always entertained last year but lacked consistency. He’ll get used to officials and disciplinary committees over time — a challenge made far easier by his early success in the role. Following a comeback 2-1 win in Cincinnati, his side has the best record in MLS through eight games.

“I think it’s very important for everybody involved to see the fruits of the labor and to be successful together,” Cherundolo said. “Success can be defined differently; for me, the way I define success is that we are maximizing our potential as a group and as an organization. It’s frustrating for me to come to work every day — it is so time consuming and there’s a lot of effort that goes on — if we’re just going through the motions. We’re working extremely hard to maximize our potential, but we’re also enjoying the moment. 

“Again, the whole balance thing; it’s very important to me as a coach to be well-balanced.”

(Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)


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