Cherundolo returns home, to coach & develop players with Las Vegas and LAFC
March 19, 2021
AMONG THE ALL-TIME best American players to ever play for the national team, Steve Cherundolo is near the top of the list. For over a generation, he was the national team stalwart at right back with his best outing coming in a memorable draw vs. England at the 2010 World Cup. As popular as he was with the national team, however, it was probably a second to what he was at Hannover where he played his entire professional career from 1999 through 2014 and became affectionately known as “the Mayor of Hannover.”
Following his playing career which saw him make 370 league appearances for Hannover and earn 87 caps for the United States, Cherudolo turned to coaching and began the long process of acquiring his coaching licenses.
From 2014 through 2018, he managed at various levels within Hannover's organization. At first it was an assistant with the reserve team. Then he managed the club's U-15 and U-17 teams while also having a brief stint as the first team's assistant. In 2018, Cherundolo moved on from Hannover and took an assistant coaching position with VfB Stuttgart's first team. Most recently, he served as an assistant with the U-15 German national team.
This past month, however, a unique opportunity presented itself for him to move back to the United States. Born in Illinois and raised in San Diego, Cherundolo had not lived full-time in the United States since 1999. He had stated that he wanted to return home if the right opportunity presented itself, and become part of the growing soccer landscape in the United States.
Since its inaugural season in 2018, Los Angeles FC has become one of the most high profile soccer teams in the country with its sell-out crowds, high payroll, and attack-oriented style of play under former national team manager Bob Bradley. In December 2020, LAFC defeated three Liga MX teams to advance to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League where it suffered a close 2-1 defeat to Tigres.
This past March, LAFC entered into an affiliation partnership agreement with the Las Vegas Lights to give it a presence in the second division USL. Like many MLS clubs, having a USL affiliate would allow it to better develop young players and prepare them for the firs team. Shortly after it was announced, LAFC announced it had hired Cherundolo to be the team’s head coach.
Despite the distance between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, the LAFC and the Lights will share a technical staff. The Lights will be based and train out of LA but will travel to Las Vegas to play games. As a result, Cherundolo and Bradley will be working closely together again within the same organization.
ASN spoke at length with Cherundolo, 42, this past week about his goals with the Lights, his desire to work in the United States again, the improvement in player development, and the U.S. national team.
Brian Sciaretta for ASN: what drew you to the job of being part of the LAFC organization and taking the job as head coach of its USL affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights?
Cherundolo: A number of things. I think in any situation like that, it's a combination of factors that help one in his decision or her decision. So, for me and for my family, we just thought that this move to the United States at this time in our lives was the best option. This was an opportunity that popped up and I thought: OK, that's extremely interesting. That's a great idea. I think it's a very smart idea. I would love to be a part of this project.
ASN: How long have you been wanting to return? Because you've been overseas for for quite some time now. The last time you lived here on a full-time basis was in the 90's
Cherundolo: I've been mulling over the idea a couple of years now. But I intended on finishing my coaching licenses in Germany first - which I did. After that, I knew that I would entertain ideas of moving home. And that's exactly what happened.
ASN: The soccer landscape in the United States has changed dramatically since you left after playing in college. I know you've been back regularly but when you're in Germany, you're fully immersed over there. How much have you been paying attention to what's going on going on back here in terms of the growth of MLS/USL and their respective academies? Has the evolving landscape intrigued you and what to you make of it all?
Cherundolo: I certainly have kept in touch with, obviously, teammates, friends, people in the business. That has never broken off. So, I was aware of what's going on here. But working in a market on a day-to-day basis is something completely different than just phoning and trying to assess through a conversation. But what I was aware of was the progress and the infrastructure in implementing those ideas.
Also, the progress and development of individual players has gotten better. The progress in itself was something that I looked at very closely and was what I thought was just amazing work from everybody involved in the sport in the United States. It was one of the reasons why I thought: OK, I want to be part this and what's going on there. This is something that, I'm going to do my part to help further.
ASN: What do you think have been the big reasons for the improvement? We see a lot of players, some of them move overseas when they're very young, but some of them start here domestically, like Tyler Adams worked from the Red Bull academy to its USL team then to its MLS team and now to the Champions League in Germany. There are a lot of different viable paths now, unlike maybe when you were younger. What has really been a turning point and really what have been the biggest obstacles to get to this point?
Cherundolo: I think the fact that you have MLS as role models for our young athletes and our young players, those are the idols and those are the players the younger players are trying to emulate, as they should. And so you have a goal that you're working towards. It is not just an idea, but it's an actual tangible goal - you can go watch on a weekly basis that is extremely important in the development of athletes or young individuals. That has been important.
On top of that, the improvements at the academy levels in coaching and scouting and maybe the amount of high quality games players are getting regularly. I think those are the key factors in development that specifically has gotten better over the past two decades.
ASN: I know the list must be long since you've played under many good coaches, who are your big influences to make the step from player into coach? Did you always know as a player that coaching was what you wanted to do afterward?
Cherundolo: I don't think you exactly know. I think you have an idea, maybe. Coaching always fascinated me and how other coaches in my career have influenced their teams and the players. I have been blessed from day one when it was youth soccer in San Diego with the Nomads all the way up to college [at the University of Portland], all the way up to the end of my professional career with excellent coaches, great personalities, but also very good technicians with tactical awareness. I try to listen and take in as much as possible from every single coach. And I feel like I was able to do that. So, my way of coaching and seeing things is kind of a mix of all the coaches that I've had over all my career.
ASN: I know this job with the Las Vegas Lights your first head coaching job at this level but what are what are the hallmarks of what you want a "Steve Cherundolo coached team" to look like? What do you value and what do you want your team to value? How do you want your teams to play?
Cherundolo: When you're talking about professional sports, I think first and foremost, the first word that pops into everybody's mind is winning. And I think winning is extremely important. That is the reason we put on jerseys, schedule games, and have fans at the stadium. So it's a very, very large portion of what we do. It's also a large portion of development in soccer, and it's not something just to rush over. So, winning is extremely important and it's usually one of the factors that helps guide our teams, how we coach, what areas we're moving into, what we're working on, and so forth.
The other is we're building on an idea that's already in place this year. And this is the wonderful thing about this project. There's already a whole lot in place here at LAFC. It's not only an attractive style of soccer, it's also an effective one. And so this is something that we just have to build on and we have some things in place to guide us. And so there's a lot to go off of. But something I would like as well is for our team, for that winning mentality all the time. It doesn't matter what day and what time or anything - we want to make sure we see that. Coupled with that, I think for me it is important that the fans will see a brave group of players that are tough to beat. And that's something that I would like to instill in this team.
ASN: Many MLS have been working with USL teams or having USL affiliates to help in youth development. In USL there are also many stand-alone teams - similar to the 3.Liga or Regionalliga levels in Germany. But having a viable second division is a recent-ish development in American soccer and it has been bearing a lot of fruit right now. What do you make of this league and coaching in this league? What are the specific challenges here and what are the opportunities for you with this team?
Cherundolo: I think it's an interesting mix. I think it's a mix - and this is not exclusive to the Las Vegas Lights, but I think this is maybe the case for a number of teams. I think you have to find a mix between, young, highly talented players who are using this maybe this as a step, but also seasoned veterans who could be using this as a step as well - but to help balance out the younger guys with the group to further their development. It's really about finding that balance between old and young, experienced and inexperienced. This is what's interesting about the league. I think you'll see all ends of that. You're going to see teams that are very young, teams that are very old, teams that are right in the middle. So that's very interesting about this league. It's kind of a clashing of rosters that come together - and budgets as well.
ASN: Obviously you will be working with your former national team coach - Bob Bradley, as he is the head coach of LAFC. Discuss the nature of the relationship?
Cherundolo: We are living and training out of L.A., so it's only a couple of doors apart. And the relationship is very close, but as a staff act, we see and talk daily.
ASN: It seems like so many American players have been developed so quickly at the high levels. It wasn't that long ago when they failed to qualify for the World Cup. Yet all these players have emerged over the last three years. It's it seems like an exciting time. Is it sustainable to keep producing this level of players this quickly? Just to be part of this landscape now, and I know you are just getting started, but do you think we're really hitting the tip of the iceberg about what's possible in this country?
Cherundolo: The potential of US soccer is endless, in my opinion. And I think the generation of players who are really making their mark in the Champions League and top clubs in Europe right now are fantastic. They're great competitors but they're also extremely far along technically and tactically. I believe that the younger generation will use that to further themselves and to maybe push the bar a little higher. That's something I certainly hope to see. As a coach, I will do everything in my power to help players reach those levels, to give them the fundamentals they need to excel at those levels.
ASN: And someone who's has lived so long overseas and obviously there has been ups and downs along the way - but right now, what do you think the perception of the league and American soccer is abroad? Do you sense it's changed from the when it used to be seen that Americans can't play? Now it seems different to the point where top clubs are scouting players like Bryan Reynolds, who has never played with the national team and only had like a half season worth of minutes in MLS, and now he's at Roma. It seems very, very different. As someone wtih your background what is the evolution of how major European countries and leagues have viewed Americans in the sport then compared with where it is now?
Cherundolo: I think the opinion or perception of American players is kind of a natural process. It's gotten better from generation to generation. The people before me - guys like Claudio Reyna, Eric Wynalda, Brian McBride, Kasey Keller who were in Germany - they got this thing started. The players like myself, Carlos Bocanegra, and Tim Howard, this generation - we were maybe the next to further a little more. And then the next generation does their part and so forth. So, these things take time.
But to sum it all up, I think in coming from Germany, I can tell you that the Germans would look at an American player and see a wonderful mentality, one that they love and respect. Technically - players who are at the level as young German players are and physically just as good, if not better. So it's really three of the four boxes that you're able to check off right away when you've got an American player. And the fourth one is tactics. So really, if you find a player who has the capability to learn quickly, then the tactics become no issue either. That is kind of the perception.
To go a little further, I think I'll say for the most part, when I first went over, I was not getting the benefit of the doubt after a poor performance. Now Americans, after a poor performance, will get a benefit of the dobut and they'll say, oh, you know what? He just had a bad day. He'll be fine next week. Whereas 20 years ago when I first started playing over there, it was: see, I told you, he's American, he can't do it. [Lauging] That is maybe in two sentences a better description of how their view of American players has changed.
ASN: The final question here is about the national team right now. Obviously, you played a massive role in the team's history. How excited are you for its future? It seems to be a promising generation. They haven't really gotten going yet in major competitions, but it seems like a pretty exciting time - especially heading into the future in terms of the players we know about and players this country seems to be producing now on somewhat regular basis,
Cherundolo: I think Gregg Berhalter, Earnie Stewart and their staff have done an excellent job of extending the pool of players, recruiting players and really focusing in on a new generation. Now the key is out of that core group of players, how do you form a team to qualify this country for the World Cup and do well at the World Cup? And that's the next step, which they very well know. They both have been there and done it. So, the staff is certainly prepared for the job. And I'm looking forward to seeing what this team can achieve, because I'm very excited. I haven't been this excited about the U.S. national team in a long of time. I'm really looking forward to these qualifiers getting started.