After 22 years spent abroad, Steve Cherundolo is heading home.
Once a stalwart for both club and country as a player, Cherundolo is joining the LAFC organization and will manage its USL Championship affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights.
His has been a lengthy apprenticeship. To call Cherundolo a steady and dependable right-back during his playing days doesn’t quite do him justice. He was spectacular in his own understated way — both for Hannover 96 and the United States — precisely because he was so consistent.
Following a 15-year playing career in which he made more than 400 league and cup appearances for Hannover, Cherundolo then spent the next seven years in a variety of coaching roles, managing Hannover’s U15 and U17 teams, and later working as an assistant coach with VfB Stuttgart and Germany‘s U15s. Along the way he picked up his UEFA Pro coaching license, as coveted a coaching badge as there is on the planet.
All of which sets up Cherundolo well for the job ahead with Vegas, where he’ll be tasked with developing players on the cusp of playing with LAFC’s first team.
“It’s a situation I’m comfortable in, not only curriculum-wise but also to the age group of players,” he told ESPN (Editor’s note: Steve Cherundolo is a frequent guest on ESPN FC, which streams seven days a week on ESPN+). “So it’s something I think comes natural to me and I love doing this. I love helping players move to the next level. There’s a lot in place already in Los Angeles so it’s really just helping a lot of these players get to the next step and get the necessary experiences to make the steps themselves, because it’s not the coach who just makes these players automatically better. It’s the players who have to put in the work, which is showing them the direction.”
But as much as Cherundolo is returning to his Southern California home, he’s also saying goodbye to another one. It was in Germany that the former U.S international spent the entirety of his professional career, starting out in 1999 as a 20-year-old when Hannover was in the 2. Bundesliga and becoming such a mainstay that he was dubbed “the Mayor of Hannover.” It’s also where he met his wife Mandy and where their two children were born.
For Cherundolo’s family, while the prospect of being closer to his parents, not to mention nieces and nephews, is enticing, the ties in Germany still bind. They will not be so easily loosened, much less broken.
“After that many years, it’s been super-emotional times, mixed feelings,” he said. “That’s the reaction of a lot of my friends and family here [in Germany]. On the one hand, they’re extremely ecstatic and happy for us, and for this adventure for our kids. On the other side they’re sad to see us go and I have to say that’s a great description for myself and my own emotions.”
So why leave, then? After all, Cherundolo was hugely respected for what he did in Germany.
The answer is that beyond the adventure aspect for his family, there’s the fact that as an organization, LAFC has done just about everything right as it enters its fourth year in MLS, from the building of its stadium, to its hiring of Bob Bradley as manager, to the team that it has formed. The timing was right too, as it was just last year that Cherundolo finished up his UEFA coaching courses. Until then, he hadn’t been taking many calls as it related to work in North America, although he reportedly was interviewed for the Toronto FC managerial job that went to Chris Armas. But then LAFC’s EVP of Soccer Operations John Thorrington called him up to pitch him the Vegas job.
“I thought, ‘You know, this might work,'” Cherundolo said.
But there is a deeper reason why he’s moving on from his time in Germany. He describes a German soccer culture that is stuck in its ways, especially as it relates to youth development. He maintains that the German youth system is “about getting results, and maybe not as much as about developing players and giving them the time they need, and maybe in the teams they need.”
He’s seen instances of a 14-year-old player capable of playing at higher age groups kept in his current team in order to win a youth title. He also speaks of a lack of recognition of the fact that players develop at different rates, which leads to a lack of patience.
“It’s imperative to give each player the time and the level he needs to maximize their potential,” he said. “And I think a lot of clubs are choosing not to take that time because it is difficult and it is the harder route. And then [they’re] just filtering kids in and out every year and making sure the level of play is as high as possible and trying to win youth league championships, which I’m not sure are that important.”
The irony is that the U.S. youth system has been criticized for an overemphasis on winning as well, and there are entrenched interests. But Cherundolo senses that there is more flexibility in the U.S., with fewer ingrained traditions.
“The general public and then the sports world and soccer around the U.S. will be more open to changes if the arguments are made and understood,” he said. “Then change is inevitable.”
There will be some unique challenges ahead. Cherundolo and his players will be based in Los Anegels and then travel to Vegas ahead of home games. That will make every game seem like a road trip. He will also be playing for an owner in Las Vegas’ Brett Lashbrook who is intent on getting players out in the community doing appearances, which will be a challenge given the setup. (And yes, Cherundolo said he had spoken with former Lights manager Eric Wynalda to get a sense of the organization and market.)
Another challenge will be the fact that he’ll be in charge of an older set of players than he has been previously. Granted, there won’t be a parent community to manage, as was the case in some of his previous gigs, but Cherundolo doesn’t think it will be that different.
“The game itself doesn’t change,” he said. “So the goal of youth soccer is to develop your players, and so that determines what you train on a day-to-day basis, and the drills you decide to pick and to create. The men’s game is obviously about getting results, and so you have to change the way you train as well and the way you go about addressing players and speaking to players and in the way you make decisions. The needs of the players are different, but managing a group, it’s the same.”
Where Cherundolo will impart his wisdom will be different as well. After 22 years, the U.S. soccer community will be better for it.