There are numerous examples of players jumping straight into management upon retirement. Barcelona and Spain legend Xavi took over the managerial reins at Qatari club Al Sadd mere days after his playing career ended, while Frank Lampard took his first managerial job at Derby County 18 months after hanging up his boots. Major League Soccer has seen some examples as well, with Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake) and Ben Olsen (D.C. United) both transitioning quickly into the coaching ranks.
Steve Cherundolo took a different route. After an illustrious playing career with German side Hannover 96 and the U.S. men’s national team, Cherundolo spent seven years gaining experience at nearly all levels: with Hannover’s youth teams, Germany’s under-15 team, or assistant coaching roles with Hannover and VfB Stuttgart. Along the way, he procured the coveted UEFA Pro license and last season, he managed LAFC’s USL affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights. That lengthy apprenticeship paid off Monday with the announcement that Cherundolo is the new manager of LAFC.
“I made a conscious decision to make it a long path and to really learn from the ground up, to be best prepared for this day when it comes,” he said. “And it’s here. I never had a timeline, but I also felt if the time was right, if the situation was right, there would be no hesitation. And that’s where we are now.”
At first glance, it seems like Cherundolo is taking a significant leap up the managerial ladder. His record last year with the Lights was rather humbling, with six wins and 23 defeats from 32 games to register the worst record in the Western Conference. But Las Vegas’ role in the LAFC organization was always clear — player development, not results — meaning that Cherundolo’s record needs to be viewed through that lens.
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There is also the résumé of the man Cherundolo is replacing, Bob Bradley, who departed Los Angeles at the end of the 2021 season to take the job at Toronto FC. When Bradley arrived ahead of LAFC’s expansion season in 2018, he had a deep well of experience from which to draw. By contrast, this is Cherundolo’s first foray into managing a first-team. It’s not just any team, either. LAFC is looked upon as one of the top jobs in the league.
Yet Cherundolo brings with him his own experiences, both in the U.S. and abroad. He is well-versed in the grind of coaching and playing. The question now is if he can succeed on a bigger stage.
“I think it is a transition, for sure,” said LAFC co-president and GM John Thorrington. “But it is one that I think [Cherundolo’s] background shows that he’s ready for. And I think, for us, I always saw from when I knew Steve as a 19-year-old that he had head coach in his future. And I think I’m not the only one who has thought that. We felt that getting to know him this last year, and what he had to offer and where we are as a club, that now was the right time to give him that opportunity.”
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The respective personalities of Bradley and Cherundolo, at least outwardly, seem vastly different as well. Bradley oozes intensity while Cherundolo seems more reserved. Will the difference be too jarring?
Cherundolo, for his part, understands that the key is to be his own man, rather than a pure Bradley disciple. His familiarity with the players on the roster will give him a head start, and it’s worth pointing out that for all of Bradley’s success in L.A., including the Supporters Shield triumph in 2019, this was a team that failed to reach the playoffs last season. A different voice may be just what this team needs.
His ability to develop players also caught Thorrington’s eye, and the LAFC GM pointed to the development of defender Mamadou Fall last season as an example of Cherundolo’s ability to connect and improve players. “If you look at our roster, we have the youngest starting team in the league, and a big part of who we are is developing our players, and making them better,” Thorrington said. “Steve is a specialist at that.”
It isn’t just the new manager who is making a transition, however — the same can be said for LAFC’s roster. Midfield maestro Eduard Atuesta has departed for Brazilian side Palmeiras. Diego Rossi is poised to make his loan move to Turkish side Fenerbahce into a permanent transfer. The acquisitions of defender Franco Escobar from Atlanta and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi from expansion side Charlotte are solid pickups, and attacker Cristian Arango impressed with 14 goals in about a half-season’s worth of work, but more needs to be done, a fact that Thorrington acknowledged. There is time to make more moves, and that gives Cherundolo confidence about the state of the team heading into 2022.
“I think the amount of changes we’re having are completely normal,” said Cherundolo. “The core of the team is coming back, so I don’t think we are going to rebuild at all.”
Steve Cherundolo has a wealth of experience to draw upon around the world. LAFC
Much of LAFC’s future hinges on the role of star forward Carlos Vela. The former Mexico international’s contract option was picked up, but that only lasts through June. The question of Vela’s future after that is an open question, as is the extent to which Cherundolo can count on him. Thorrington sounded like a man whose long-term plans include the 2019 MLS MVP.
“I think the conversations between Steve and Carlos are very encouraging,” Thorrington said. “Those have already taken place. Part of our process, with [candidates] is, ‘What role do you have in your mind for Carlos?’ Carlos is a critical piece as to who we are and what we’re going to be. And it was informative for us to hear the plans that these various candidates had for Carlos. My conversation with Carlos, Steve’s conversation with Carlos, I think has [Vela] really excited about the role Steve has planned for him.”
Cherundolo’s career has seen him draw experience from some interesting managers. In addition to Bradley, there is new Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick, who managed Hannover from 2001 to ’04. But Cherundolo also credits the UEFA Pro license course with helping to form him as a manager.
“It’s a lengthy process of developing your own philosophy,” Cherundolo said about the course. “And obviously, there are influences. The process of going through it yourself, for me, was challenging, but also, in the end, very rewarding, because you get to know yourself, I think better, and what you really believe in, and getting all that on paper and making sure it all makes sense.”
What is Cherundolo’s philosophy? “We will try to be proactive, well balanced, and constantly making good decisions, but at the right times, also being explosive and dangerous,” he said. “So [it’s] recognizing where we are on the field and what phase of the game we are in and to make sure you’re making good decisions. The more good decisions you can make over 90 minutes, the chances of winning the game will increase.”
In a little less than two months, Cherundolo will get to put his theories into practice. After seven years, he’s betting it will be worth the wait.