How LAFC went from missing the playoffs to playing for the MLS Cup in one season

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo watches at forward Carlos Vela during the first half of an MLS playoff match against the Galaxy.
LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo watches at forward Carlos Vela (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff match against the Galaxy on Oct. 20 at Banc of California Stadium.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Steve Cherundolo’s face often curls into a wry smile, somewhere between malevolent and mischievous, as if he’s in on a prank no one else knows about.

Maybe he is, because what he’s done this season, his first as an MLS manager, isn’t supposed to be this easy. During the regular season, his LAFC team won 21 games, 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 final 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.


And there isn’t a player in LAFC’s locker room unsure about who deserves credit for that.

“He’s gotten the best out of all of us,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “He’s implemented his systems and his tactics and I think, as a group, we bought into it.”

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

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

“This is his team. This team has his identity,” midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “Everything that we do and that we can achieve, it’s because of him.”

The combination of USC’s homecoming game and LAFC hosting the MLS Cup final Saturday is creating a traffic challenge, with no parking available for soccer fans.

Nov. 1, 2022

That wasn’t necessarily the feeling among the fanbase last January when LAFC named Cherundolo, a neophyte with just six lifetime wins as a manager, to replace the hyper-experienced Bob Bradley, a two-time national team coach and the first American to manage in the English Premier League.

“We were getting attacked,” LAFC co-president Larry Freedman said. “A lot of the fan base thought we were going to hire an A-plus caliber guy from the Premier League or something. But without exception people in the global game, people that Steve had played with, the people that really, really knew Steve and had intimate knowledge of his career and his path and him as a human, every one of those messages was, ‘Congratulations, you hired an amazing guy. He’s going to do great things.’”


The simple truth that Cherundolo isn’t Bradley or some other pedigreed coach has been key to his success.

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

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

“He sees everything,” Beitashour said.

That intensity wore thin over time, however, making the California calm of Cherundolo, 43, who grew up in San Diego, a welcome change. Captain Carlos Vela called the new coach “cool” and “positive” and said the attitude around the team has been more relaxed, suggesting the 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, as Cherundolo did before Sunday’s conference final.

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

Which isn’t to say he can’t get angry if the situation demands. When LAFC struggled through a stretch where it won just one of six games in August and September, costing it a chance at breaking Bradley’s single-season record for points and nearly costing it home-field advantage in the playoffs, Cherundolo changed his tune.

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo congratulates players as they celebrate after scoring.
LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, right, congratulates players as they celebrate after scoring their side’s second goal against Inter Miami on March 12 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

“He comes from a laid-back approach, but there’s some times he’s really gotten into us. So he has that switch,” Acosta said.

“He’s a very calm person and he gives us the confidence and the calmness we need in this moment. But also there were some moments during the last part of the season in which he was hard,” agreed Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, who has played for some of the world’s top coaches.

“He doesn’t speak so much but everything he said is true. All the team respects and loves him.”

LAFC assistant Ante Razov, who played and coached under Bradley and played and coached with Cherundolo, a teammate on the national team, said the transition from disciplinarian to a more flexible approach isn’t unusual.

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

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


“He has an education that I would argue is like having a PhD from Stanford, getting his pro [coaching] license in Germany,” said Thorrington, whose call it was to hire Cherundolo. “When we looked at what this group of players needed, we felt Steve was the right choice. And he’s proven that decision to be correct.”

That’s largely because Thorrington, who has had an unparalleled year as general manager, gave him the pieces with which to be successful. After watching LAFC stumble to a losing record and miss the playoffs for the first time last season, he overhauled the roster last winter. Midseason trades of Mark-Anthony Kaye and Corey Baird in 2021 netted the team $1.5 million in allocation money, which Thorrington used to acquire Acosta and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.

LAFC and the Philadelphia Union will face off in the MLS Cup. It’s rare for the league’s strongest regular-season teams to reach the championship.

Nov. 1, 2022

In February, he sent little-used defender Marco Farfan to Dallas for Ryan Hollingshead, who has had the best season of his career, and then in a remarkable series of summer acquisitions Thorrington landed Chiellini, who captained Italy to a European Championship in 2021; Gareth Bale, a five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid; and cleared out disgruntled designated players Diego Rossi and Brian Rodríguez, replacing them with Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello.

“You could argue that they just had the best transfer window anybody’s ever had,” Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “I really think that John’s one of the best GMs in the league.”

But, Lagerwey added, it doesn’t mean anything if LAFC doesn’t win Saturday.

“The goal for all of us is very clearly MLS Cup,” he said. “They haven’t won that yet.”