A year ago, LAFC was in the desert for preseason games ahead of the 2022 Major League Soccer season. The Black and Gold, coming off their worst year ever, were under new direction with Steve Cherundolo. There was sufficient criticism when the hire was announced, but general manager John Thorrington knew all along that he had the right guy.
Yet even the biggest optimist couldn’t imagine what was about to unfold the rest of the year.
Reflecting on a historic season that saw LAFC win MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, Cherundolo thinks all the way back to that trip to the desert.
“We had a coming-together moment as a group. It was one of my favorite parts of the season,” he told Yahoo Sports. “To see them enjoy each other’s company, accept one another and become a team was very gratifying. I know it when I see it — you can feel it, and it was there.”
It was the start of what would become a year many have dreamt about.
As LAFC racked up wins throughout the campaign, it was clear they were out to make a statement. And it also became evident that Cherundolo was the perfect catalyst to guide them. What was once skepticism turned into mostly praise as the rookie head coach set an MLS record with 21 regular-season victories.
Somewhere between the successes, LAFC were able to land global superstars such as Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini to flex their muscles on the league.
That was the crucial point of the season that proved exactly how valuable a foundation Cherundolo had built in a short time at the helm. Adding those players to a team that was already atop the standings brought upon its own doubts. Will they be able to adapt to the locker room and league? Can a new head coach manage playing time and egos?
The answer, to all of the above, was yes.
“He knows when to be serious, when to joke and, most importantly, to give the players freedom and flexibility,” Carlos Vela said. “The relationship he created with players was very good. When you feel like a coach has that confidence in you, you work in a better way. It’s the best way to reciprocate that confidence he instills in us.”
Cherundolo and his coaching staff’s ability to strike a balance is admittedly what he’s proudest of. Due to his past experiences as a player and coach for USL’s Las Vegas Lights FC, he wanted to focus on revamping LAFC’s defensive efforts in terms of transition and defending lower. It’s no surprise that a player such as Diego “Chiqui” Palacios flourished so much in his system, as did mostly everyone who rotated through that back line. Then they brought in perhaps one of the most revered center backs in the world to boost that mentality even more.
They didn’t need Chiellini to be what he was for Juventus or the Italian national team. Nor did they need Bale to be the fast and furious goal-scoring machine he was with Real Madrid. Both the players and coaches understood that, and in turn, the team was able to morph their identity with them in the fold.
“What they added to the locker room in the moments where it could’ve gone in both directions was incredible,” Cherundolo said. “Their leadership and experience was certainly something we were hoping for, and we got 100 percent.”
Bale ended up scoring only two goals. One of those happened to be an equalizer in the 128th minute of MLS Cup extra time to send the game to penalty kicks. Biggest goal in LAFC history? Probably, for now at least.
That’s just how good the script was.
They beat their rivals, the LA Galaxy, to kick off the playoffs. Cherundolo refers to that as the moment when they knew they could take it all the way. They followed it with their best performance of the year in the Western Conference final, a 3-0 win over Austin FC. The cherry on top was an instant classic against the Philadelphia Union for MLS Cup.
Could it have been any more perfect?
“No,” Cherundolo said. “I’d be disappointed if Peter Guber doesn’t make a movie out of this.”
The sequel, however, is going to be tough.
MLS hasn’t seen repeat champions since the Galaxy in 2011 and '12. Things were much different back then. And besides the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield double they won last year, LAFC will also compete for three other trophies: CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup.
The Black and Gold exceeded expectations last year, but this year’s challenge is a different one. They traded Cristian "Chicho" Arango, the most dynamic attacker they had, to Liga MX club Pachuca. Bale, despite not playing a huge role in his months in L.A., delivered when it mattered most and then retired. Goalkeeper Max Crepeau is still in recovery after breaking his leg in that wild Cup final.
For the most part, the team didn't have too much turnover, so they can be expected to remain one of the best in the league. Their ambition remains prevalent, as they brought in players such as Stipe Biuk, Sergi Palencia, Aaron Long, Timothy Tillman and Denil Maldonado to help round out the roster.
If LAFC want to make a run at some more hardware, they’ll need to prioritize competitions because the calendar is packed. But that’s a test this club embraces. Some even started preparing not long after confetti filled the Los Angeles air on Nov. 5.
“I think I shut my soccer brain off for about a little over a week,” Cherundolo told Yahoo Sports. “That’s a new record for me.”
The coach was able to take some time off for vacation with his family, but it was back to work quickly because there’s so much left to accomplish. Cherundolo, in his true nature, doesn’t allow himself to really celebrate the moment. Simply put: We’re moving on.
“Maybe years down the road, when I’m out of a job and have lots of time, sitting in my garden, I’ll think about it,” he said when asked if he has taken a step back to relish his accomplishments. “I haven’t really slowed down to think about it.”
LAFC have their foot on the gas and are moving ahead at full speed.