May 23, 2024

There are a number of ways to describe LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo.

He’s the only person to win the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield in his first season as a manager. With his team’s appearances in Saturday’s MLS championship game against the Columbus Crew, he’ll become one of just three coaches to take his team to the MLS Cup final in each of his first two years; and at 44, he’s also the youngest to do so. Plus with 29 wins and 96 points through his first 50 MLS games, he had the most successful start of any coach in league history.

Yet for Herculez Gomez, a former World Cup teammate who has known Cherundolo more than a dozen years, all those accolades are like the medals on a general’s uniform: they’re window dressing that tell us nothing about the man’s character or personality.

Ask Gomez to describe Cherundolo and he talks about grins, not wins.

“Steve,” he says, “was by far the funniest teammate I ever had on the national team.”

Not a two-drink minimum type of humor; nothing that would make him give up his day job to perform at The Improv. But rather the droll sarcasm that can lighten the pressure in a tense dressing room and make a game feel like a game again.

“Teammate humor,” says Cobi Jones, another former teammate. “A little bit of a dry humor. He has that smirk that just in itself makes you laugh. There’s something about comedy or humor, you have to be able to deliver it in the right way. And Cherundolo was always able to do that.”

He’s done it so well, in fact, it has become his super power as a coach. A lot of guys can draw up effective game plans, make keen tactical changes or manage substitutions. But Cherundolo’s accomplishments may, in large part, be as much a product of his personality as his personnel moves.

Take this season. No really, take it. Please.

Saturday’s MLS Cup final will be LAFC’s 53rd game in 41 weeks, an exhausting schedule that has challenged his players’ focus as much as their fitness. But it’s also a schedule that could end with the team lifting the trophy for a second consecutive season, something no MLS team has done since the Galaxy in 2011-12. And veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini, who played for some of soccer’s most legendary managers during an 18-year career in Italy, said Cherundolo deserves much of the credit for that.

“He has the quality of being able to maintain a balance,” Chiellini said. “He understands the moment, understands when we have to raise our power, our focus, or [when to] leave us a little bit lighter. It’s a huge quality, understanding the threshold and understanding the level of pressure.”

LAFC players celebrate after winning the MLS Cup, holding up the trophy

LAFC players celebrate beating the Philadelphia Union to win the 2022 MLS Cup.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

It’s also a quality he possessed as a player, said Stuart Holden, who played with Cherundolo and, in 2021, gave the introductory speech prior to his teammate’s induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

“He did have a funny side,” he said. “He just found a way to know what the team needed. Whe[n] the team needed a little bit of a lighter touch after a tough game and the guys were down, he would find a way to balance that with a bit of banter, mixing in with guys, relating with younger players, older players. And Steve can let his hair down a little bit too.”

Just as in comedy, timing has had a lot to do with Cherundolo’s success.

He made his first of third World Cup rosters, for example, only after injuries claimed the two players ahead of him. More important, however, he played under two of the national team’s most successful managers in Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley and alongside more than dozen players who would go on to become successful coaches themselves, among them Gregg Berhalter, who took the U.S. to a World Cup last fall; Greg Vanney, who won an MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield with Toronto; and Jesse Marsch, who won the Austrian Bundesliga with Salzburg and coached Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League.

It was a golden era for U.S. coaches — but also for would-be coaches. And it rubbed off on Cherundolo.

“It could be the environment, could be coincidence,” he said. “But having played with those players — all cerebral and smart players who obviously thought about the game and all have very clear ideas — I think that’s very important as a coach.

“All of my coaches were a big influence on me.”

Steve Cherundolo and Dariusz Dudka challenge for the ball during a 2008 match between Poland and the U.S.

Steve Cherundolo, left, and Dariusz Dudka challenge for the ball during a 2008 match between Poland and the U.S.

(Czarek Sokolowski / Associated Press)

Just as he became an influence on others.

“I was in the squad when he when he just broke into the national team. And it was really refreshing to have a guy like that,” Berhalter said. “He always had a good attitude; relaxed off the field but then on the field, he went and did his job. What stands out the most is how pressure didn’t really affect him. No matter the circumstance, he was still the same Steve.”

Timing also played a big part in Cherundolo landing the job at LAFC.

After a long playing and coaching career in Germany, Cherundolo, who grew up in La Jolla, wanted to come home so his children could be around their grandparents. But his job options appeared limited. Though he had been an assistant at Stuttgart and Hannover as well as with the German youth national team program, he had never managed a senior team when LAFC general manager John Thorrington, another former teammate, asked him to coach the Las Vegas Lights, the team’s first-year affiliate in the second-tier USL Championship.

On paper, that 2021 season was a disaster: the Lights, who bused from L.A. to Las Vegas for home games, a 500-mile roundtrip, won just six of 32 games and finished last in the 15-team Western Conference. Thorrington didn’t care what the paper said. He had asked Cherundolo to develop the franchise’s young players and he did that well, preparing teenagers such as Erik Duenas, Kwadwo Opoku and Mamadou Fall, among others, for the next step in their careers.

“I did recognize that he would be a coach that our players would love playing for,” said Thorrington, who made his national team debut coming on as a substitute in place of Cherundolo in 2001. “I had seen evidence of that with the Las Vegas Lights. To have a coach get a group of guys excited to play when they’re taking the bus to Vegas for every home game, it says a lot.”

So that winter, when LAFC parted ways with Bradley after he had taken the team to three playoff appearances and a Supporters’ Shield in its first four seasons, Cherundolo leapfrogged over a long list of high-profile candidates — among them former Mexican national team manager Juan Carlos Osorio, current Mexican manager Jaime Lozano and Portuguese coach Renato Paiva — to land the job. It wasn’t exactly a popular choice.

“When you hire a coach, you’re taking a risk. But when we made the decision with Steve, I went in absolutely eyes wide open as to who he was and what I thought he could do,” Thorrington said earlier this week. “Nobody that knew Steve was surprised at our decision.”

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo congratulates players as they celebrate scoring against Inter Miami in 2022

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, right, congratulates players as they celebrate scoring against Inter Miami during the 2022 season.

(Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

In the locker room, Cherundolo was the perfect choice, the polar opposite of Bradley, a demanding perfectionist whose relentless approach had worn thin.

“A completely different type of person, type of coach, style of play,” said Carlos Vela, the only player remaining from LAFC’s first season in 2018. “With Bob, to build our team, was really, really important. Every day doing the same thing, repeating [it] every single time to get perfect.

“Steve, with his character, [is] a vibes guy, a chill guy. After being with Bob, I was like [Steve] wants more freedom. It’s not like who’s better than the other.”

Yet that playfulness is a side of his personality Cherundolo the coach has kept hidden from public view, worried that a smile or a laugh might be misinterpreted.

“Sometimes, mostly in Europe, that can be used in the wrong way. So I just kind of shy away from it,” he said. “But certainly around the [training center] there’s a lot of laughing going on.”

Holden said the change has been unmistakable.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo watches as forward Carlos Vela walks on the pitch during a 2022 match against the Galaxy.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo watches as forward Carlos Vela walks on the pitch during a 2022 match against the Galaxy.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

“Under Bob, clearly the team ran out of gas,” he said. “Steve has found the right balance between pushing the team, giving them enough information in terms of tactical plan, but then also allowing for flexibility within that.”

In addition to rebuilding the culture, Cherundolo has also changed LAFC’s approach to the game. Under Bradley, LAFC reflected its coach’s intense personality, playing an aggressive ball-control game even when the situation demanded patience. Under the more-relaxed Cherundolo, LAFC has slowly morphed into a counterattacking team, one willing to cede possession and wait for its chances.

And last year, in his first season as coach, Cherundolo rewarded the confidence of his general manager and captain by guiding LAFC to its second Supporters’ Shield and its first MLS Cup. This season has been far more challenging.

LAFC started the year with a shot at six trophies but lost to Mexican clubs in the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League and Campeones Cup, was eliminated in the round of 16 in the U.S. Open Cup and in the quarterfinals of the Leagues Cup, then finished eighth in the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Despite a league-high 20 goals from Denis Bouanga, LAFC endured multiple three-game losing streaks during the summer, winning just two of 10 MLS games at one point. The relentless schedule, which necessitated multiple weeks in which the team had to play three times while traveling more than 63,000 miles, enough to circumnavigate the globe 2 ½ times, resulted in so many injuries Vela and midfielder Ilie Sánchez were the only players to appear in all 34 regular-season games.

But LAFC finally found its rhythm when it mattered most, taking a seven-game unbeaten streak into Saturday’s MLS Cup final, it’s last chance to hoist some hardware this season. And Cherundolo has gotten them here with a breezy manner and an impish smile masking the competitive soul of a stone-cold killer.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo shouts to his players from the sidelines during a 2022 match against Inter Miami.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo shouts to his players from the sidelines during a 2022 match against Inter Miami.

(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

“There’s two Steves that I know today,” Gomez said. “There is the Steve I had as a teammate — lovable guy, a comedian, a true locker room guy and a hell of a player. And then there is the coach, who is calculated, who is quiet, who is very private. It’s not the guy I knew at all. But it’s who is he.

“He’s transformed himself into a different type of leader. You don’t get to see the real Steve Cherundolo. He’s very professional and calculated now.”

Looks like he got the last laugh after all.

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