When the newly appointed LAFC Head Coach Steve Cherundolo addressed the fans and media for the first time at the start of this year, he said something that has stuck from the moment it was said, up until now. After an offseason where the club saw a several players — a couple very talented, core players included — depart for pastures new, and with the team’s first-ever Head Coach Bob Bradley announcing his departure, many wondered what was next for LAFC. Star forward Carlos Vela was heading into a contract year, the team had missed the playoffs for the first time, and the questions of a possible rebuild were already underway. Then, the first-year MLS Head Coach took the podium and set the record straight.
“I don’t think we’re in the middle of a rebuild, first and foremost.”
That was the first response Cherundolo gave on the opening question about what the future of this club could look like. Adamant that with him having worked with players in the year prior — as head coach of LAFC’s USL affiliate Las Vegas Lights — gave him a unique advantage in helping the team feel comfortable. Feeling a lot less like everything was being ‘blown up and changed’ but rather more of this being a transition into a new era.
As we stand just 24 hours from LAFC’s first-ever MLS Cup Finals appearance, that new era has gotten off to a start not many expected.
In order to fully grasp the minor tweaks that eventually proved to be huge decisions when constructing this current roster, we must go back to a very familiar time in black-and-gold lore, 2019. Yes, that year has loomed over the club not only as a sense of immense pride, but more recently, as a dark cloud taunting the team with what could have been. Second to Atlanta United winning the MLS Cup in just their second year in the league, LAFC’s 2019 season was the best we had seen from a newly arrived expansion side over the past decade.
They broke just about every team record, even some individual ones, Carlos Vela won MVP, and the team looked unstoppable.
Then, they got to the conference finals where it all came crashing down.
That loss was the result of a few things. Perhaps most notably, their win against their bitter rivals a week prior. It was the first time they had ever beaten the LA Galaxy and it was a match where they very clearly gave everything they had, both physically and emotionally, to win that specific match. Add in the other obvious factor, lack of postseason experience with a squad that had a fairly young core with veterans not familiar with playoff soccer having come from abroad.
The disappointment for the way that season ended stayed with the club for years. It definitely didn't help watching the team get knocked out of the first round of the playoffs in 2020, then go on to really lay an egg in 2021, missing the playoffs altogether for the first time in their short history.
Things were so tense, that after a rough loss earlier this season, fans had a silent protest, where they refused to cheer on the squad for twelve minutes, propping up a banner that read “all we require is your very best.” It was both eerie, and sign that frustrations had boiled over with many having MLS Cup or bust expectations for team.
Those expectations are why Cherundolo received so much doubt when announced as the head coach. Far from the “biggest” name, many wondered if this was the club punting on the season and starting a rebuild with a first-year head coach and a depleted roster. Then, he spoke. He made it clear this was a team that while different, would still “score goals and make the fans proud” and they've done that and more. Cherundolo was right, the team didn't rebuild. Instead they did something even better, they evolved.
It’s a big reason why LAFC General Manager and Co-President John Thorrington brought in Cherundolo over the others.
“We know what works for LAFC and also what works in MLS, and Steve has a unique blend of international and domestic experience at the highest levels that matches those needs. We have seen this past year how great a fit he is with the LAFC culture...” That last sentence being the key. Cherundolo’s year with the Las Vegas Lights — in which he also spent working within LAFC and with various players — gave him the upper hand because the club didn't want to bring in someone who might destroy everything and start over. Rather, they wanted someone familiar with the organization, someone who could build on the foundation already laid.
The team then got to work on bringing in new players, but not just their usual young, extremely talented foreign imports, but rather looking closer to home. Signings like goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Ilie Sanchez, and defender Ryan Hollingshead. All players with immense MLS experience and players who know what it’s like to play in and win in the MLS Playoffs. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they were also supremely talented. Crepeau gave the team much needed stability at the goalkeeper position while Acosta and Sanchez helped fill the holes left as a result of the departures. The team had come together in a perfect blend of really great young talent, and some much needed experience. It was balanced, as all things should be.
Their experience was tested immediately, with the team finishing the season with their second Supporters’ Shield, and as if ordained by destiny, faced a semifinal match against their rivals once again. Just like in 2019, they were able to overcome them and advance to the Conference Finals, but unlike 2019 they now had the experience needed to not get too high from that victory. Instead of coming into a conference final mentally depleted, they came in laser focused, and put together their best performance of the year while winning their first-ever Western Conference title.
Now, they stand just a day away from the moment this team was built for. A chance at the one trophy they've made abundantly clear they wanted since before they even officially joined the league. This year they’ve shown exactly what evolution is all about. It’s not about making drastic changes, or losing sense of your identity. Rather, it’s about growth, understanding your weaknesses and working hard to improve them. It’s realizing you aren't perfect, and even in the greatest of moments, will have more work to do. It’s not about becoming something different, but becoming a better version of your past self, and that's exactly what this LAFC team is.
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