LAFC, Steve Cherundolo moving full speed ahead in hunt for more trophies

Los Angeles forward Carlos Vela (center) holds fans.  The Shield trophy at the awards ceremony following an MLS football game against Nashville SC on Sunday, October 9, 2022 in Los Angeles.  The Supporters' Shield is awarded to the MLS team with the best regular season record.  (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
LAFC is looking to add more trophies to its shelf in 2023. (AP Photo/Ringo HW Chiu)

A year ago, LAFC was in the desert for pre-season games ahead of the 2022 Major League Soccer season. Black and Gold, having experienced the worst year of its life, were under the new management of Steve Cherundolo. There was enough criticism when the hiring was announced, but general manager John Torrington knew all along that he had picked the right guy.

However, even the biggest optimist could not imagine what would happen before the end of the year.

Reflecting on the historic season in which the LAFC won the MLS Cup and Fan Shield, Cerundolo recalls that trip to the desert.

“We had a moment of unification as a group. It was one of my favorite parts of the season,” he told Sportzshala Sports. “It was really nice to see how they enjoy each other’s company, accept each other and become a team. I know it when I see it – you can feel it and it was there.”

It was the start of a year that many have dreamed of.

With the LAFC winning throughout the campaign, it was clear they wanted to make a name for themselves. It also became apparent that Cherundolo was the perfect catalyst for their leadership. What was once skepticism turned mostly to praise when a rookie head coach set an MLS record with 21 regular season wins.

Somewhere in between the successes, LAFC managed to bring in global superstars like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini to flex their muscles in the league.

It was a defining moment of the season that proved how valuable the foundation Cerundolo laid in his short time at the helm was. The addition of these players to a team that was already at the top of the standings raised its own doubts. Will they be able to adapt to the locker room and the league? Can a new head coach manage playing time and ego?

The answer, to all of the above, was yes.

“He knows when to be serious, when to joke and, most importantly, give the players freedom and flexibility,” said Carlos Vela. “The relationship he created with the players was very good. When you feel that the coach trusts you, you perform better. It’s the best way to reciprocate the trust he instills in us.”

November 5, 2022;  Los Angeles, California, USA;  Los Angeles FC head coach Steve Cerundolo and his team play against the Philadelphia Union ahead of a shootout in the 2022 MLS Cup Championship game at Bank of California Stadium.  Compulsory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports
LAFC head coach Steve Cerundolo closes with his team against the Philadelphia Union ahead of the 2022 MLS Cup shootout. (Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports)

Admittedly, the ability of Cherundolo and his coaching staff to find balance is what he is most proud of. Due to his past experience as a player and coach at USL Las Vegas Lights FC, he wanted to focus on updating the LAFC’s defensive efforts in terms of transition and defense below. It’s no surprise that a player like Diego “Chiki” Palacios thrived in his system as much as almost everyone who came through that backline. They then brought in arguably one of the most respected centre-backs in the world to further reinforce that mentality.

They didn’t need Chiellini to be what he was to Juventus or Italy. They didn’t need Bale to be the fast, furious goal-scoring machine he was at Real Madrid. Both players and coaches understood this, and in turn the team was able to transform their identity with them.

“What they added to the dressing room at times when things could go both ways was incredible,” Cerundolo said. “Their guidance and experience has certainly been what we hoped for and we got 100 percent.”

As a result, Bale scored only two goals. One of them was a score that equalized in the 128th minute of extra time in the MLS Cup and moved the game to penalties. Biggest goal in LAFC history? Probably, at least for now.

That’s how good the script was.

They beat their rivals, the Los Angeles Galaxy, to advance to the playoffs. Cherundolo calls this the moment they realized they could go all the way. They then posted their best record of the year in the Western Conference Finals with a 3-0 win over Austin. The icing on the cake was an instant classic against the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Cup.

Could it be more perfect?

“No,” said Cherundolo. “I’ll be disappointed if Peter Guber doesn’t make a movie out of this.”

However, the continuation promises to be difficult.

MLS has not seen a repeat champion since Galaxy in 2011 and 2012. Then everything was completely different. And besides the MLS Cup and the Double Supporters’ Shield they won last year, LAFC will also be in contention for three other trophies: the CONCACAF Champions League, the US Open Cup and the League Cup.

Carlos Vela lifts the championship trophy after winning the MLS Cup on November 5, 2022.  (Photo by Kevork Jansezian/Getty Images)
Carlos Vela lifts the championship trophy after winning the MLS Cup on November 5, 2022. (Photo by Kevork Jansezian/Getty Images)

The Black and Gold model exceeded all expectations last year, but this year the challenge is different. They traded Christian “Chicho” Arango, the most dynamic striker they had, to Liga MX club Pachuca. Bale, despite not playing a huge role in his months in Los Angeles, hit it hard when it mattered most and then retired. Goalkeeper Max Crepo is still recovering from breaking his leg in that wild Cup final.

For the most part, the team hasn’t had too much turnover, so they can be expected to remain among the best in the league. Their ambition remains predominant as they have enlisted the likes of Stipe Bueck, Sergi Palencia, Aaron Long, Timothy Tillman and Denil Maldonado to help complete the roster.

If LAFC wants to launch any more equipment, they need to prioritize competition because the calendar is full. But this is a test that this club is taking. Some even started getting ready soon after confetti filled the air in Los Angeles on November 5th.

“I think I turned off my football brain for a little over a week,” Cerundolo told Sportzshala Sports. “This is a new record for me.”

The coach was able to take a vacation with his family, but quickly got back to work because there was still so much to do. Cherundolo, in his true nature, does not allow himself to truly celebrate the moment. Simply put: we move on.

“Perhaps in a few years, when I am free from work and spend a lot of time sitting in my garden, I will think about it,” he said when asked if he took a step back to enjoy his achievements. “I didn’t even slow down to think about it.”

LAFC steps on the gas pedal and moves forward at full speed.


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