Establishing a lead in the Supporters’ Shield standings prior to the 2022 MLS All-Star game in August, the Los Angeles Football Club was regularly dominating second halves and securing points.
Thanks to rookie coach Steve Cherundolo’s even-keel approach and his management of a deep roster, midfielder Ilie Sanchez, who joined LAFC as a free agent, credited in-game adjustments from the coaching staff for helping shut down opponents as matches wore on.
“I think the coaching staff is very precise in what they want to see in the first half, and if they don’t see it or see something different, we just try to change it at halftime,” Sanchez said at the time. “Plus we are trying to raise our intensity in games and I believe the opponents feel it is tougher to maintain that kind of intensity for the rest of the 90 minutes. It’s kind of both. We can make adjustments, but also maintaining or raising our level a little bit makes it much harder and very difficult for the opponents.”
Dropping a league-low three points from winning positions over the course of the season marked a significant improvement for Cherundolo’s group compared to previous versions of LAFC. That was also true relative to the league. New England won the Supporters’ Shield in 2021 but failed to qualify for the playoffs last year in large part because it gave away an MLS-worst 31 points after taking the lead.
Arriving in Los Angeles following five seasons with Sporting Kansas City after being groomed as a player through the Barcelona system, Sanchez said Cherundolo is one of the few coaches he encountered who offers thoughts immediately after games instead of waiting until the next training session.
The advantage of that, Sanchez said, was the input allowed players to reflect on results knowing exactly where they stood according to Cherundolo’s game model, which demanded speed and intensity adjusted for calculated risk and the ever-present variable of luck.
Weighing all of this, the 44-year-old Cherundolo said, is key to quality coaching, which he understood prior to retiring from competition in 2014.
Tactics and taking chances
During Cherundolo’s days in the German Bundesliga as a defender and captain at Hannover 96, teammate Altin Lala taught him backgammon.
“Altin kicked my ass for years until I could finally figure out that [backgammon] really is a good mix of tactics and being a little aggressive and taking chances,” Cherundolo recalled. “You can line your tactics up with the amount of risk you’re willing to take. But certainly being passive won’t win you championships.”
In this way, Cherundolo concluded the ancient board game has a strong correlation to coaching soccer.
Depending where the ball is on the field, aggressively taking chances should be considered and reconsidered.
“It’s always risk versus reward and I explain this to the guys,” he said.
Watching as adults played backgammon in his native Albania, Lala absorbed the ins and outs when he was a child.
Now 47, Lala, the managing owner of ALF Sports, a soccer player agency based in Hannover, taught backgammon to select players over the years – as well as the Hannover 96 team bus driver who, it turned out, had a knack for the game.
Cherundolo and Dutch teammate Mark van Hintum were among the better backgammon players Lala encountered.
“Steve’s understanding of the game and tactics was one of the best I’ve experienced in our time together,” the Albanian said through an interpreter. “As a player, he already thought in the same way as a coach.”
Whatever skill Cherundolo developed for backgammon over the years hasn’t stopped him from taking losses versus the app on his phone.
“That thing,” Cherundolo admitted, “kicks my ass every day.”
Lala considered Cherundolo, as a student, a conscious observer and quick learner. When the American fullback got good enough to test Lala, the Albanian defensive midfielder who earned 78 appearances for his national team from 1998 to 2011, “didn’t know Steve could be so excited about a win.”
Cherundolo, of course, was excited to become an MLS Cup winner. Believe it or not, if you’ve rewatched the 2022 final and the Black & Gold’s shootout victory over the Philadelphia Union, you’ve seen the instant classic more times than LAFC’s field boss.
Other than a sideline view for nearly 130 minutes of game action, plus penalties, the victorious head coach has not broken down the film of a championship match many observers describe as the best MLS Cup yet.
“Initially it was for fear that the result would go the other way – that somehow it would change because it was a dream,” said the smiling American, who, prior to catapulting LAFC to its first league title, stepped into the role one year ago hearing doubts about his coaching inexperience.
With or without video confirmation, from now on, whenever Cherundolo sees an LAFC jersey with a star centered above the crest, it will affirm that Nov. 5, 2022, actually unfolded how he remembered.
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“It was a final,” he said. “It was nervous.”
LAFC was better before the intermission, a noticeable reversal from how they played over the course of the season. When the Union played more direct after the half, the action was on the visitor’s terms, “which isn’t always a pretty game when they do that,” Cherundolo noted.
“There wasn’t really a whole lot to watch and then I think we made a few key subs in overtime to turn the momentum again – and then the madness happened.”