During Bob Bradley’s four seasons as LAFC’s coach, the postgame news conferences generally began the same way regardless of how the game ended. Bradley would enter the room wearing a grimace more often than a grin, sit behind a microphone and begin by explaining how his team could get better.
Bradley is gone now, having moved on to Toronto, and Steve Cherundolo has taken his seat behind the microphone, part of a sweeping series of changes that transformed the team during the winter.
More than half the team’s current starters weren’t with LAFC seven games into last season, when it had a losing record and was mired in the bottom half of the MLS standings. Under Cherundolo, LAFC (5-1-1) is tied for the league lead in wins, points, goals and goal differential entering Sunday’s game at Cincinnati.
The results have changed, but the pursuit of perfection begun under Bradley hasn’t. Only Cherundolo now delivers that message with something closer to a smile than a scowl.
“How I judge and view success is if we are maximizing our potential,” the coach said after Sunday’s win over Sporting Kansas City. “I don’t understand why we would accept anything less than playing to our limits. … It’s 100% all the time.”
Changing the messenger but not the message has had a lot to do with LAFC’s early success, said assistant Ante Razov, the only holdover from Bradley’s last coaching staff.
“Different influence, different voice. I think that is part of the process,” he said.
And it’s a process that’s just getting started.
“We have several new players, a new head coach,” Razov continued. “It’s natural the new players are going to take time to get accustomed to some of the principles that the identity brings with it. We’re still a team that is a work in progress, for sure.”
Under Bradley, LAFC spread out and played a quick-paced, possession-based attacking style in which everyone on the field was involved. Under Cherundolo, a World Cup defender for Bradley in 2010, LAFC is more patient and direct, and its fullbacks don’t drive forward as far nor as often.
Instead, LAFC plays a counter-pressing, transition game, with a midfield rebuilt around veterans Kellyn Acosta and Ilie Sánchez pushing the ball ahead to a deep and talented front line led by former MVP Carlos Vela, who is reportedly close to a contract extension that would keep him with the team through the 2023 season.
“I don’t think they’re as aggressive as they were with Bob,” said the Galaxy’s Greg Vanney, the only coach to have beaten LAFC this season. “They really create density in the midfield. They want to turn you over in the midfield and then they want to try to get you in the transition.”
But if the style is different, the results have been similar. In LAFC’s second season under Bradley, the team went 6-1-1 through its first eight games and wound up breaking the MLS single-season records for points and goal differential and tying the record for goals. With a win Sunday, Cherundolo’s team could match that start.
This season’s team is more balanced though, with 10 players contributing to the scoring, five with two or more goals. In 2019, seven players had scored through eight games, but Diego Rossi and Vela accounted for two-thirds of those goals.
LAFC lost as many games as it won in Bradley’s final two seasons, when the team was hampered by injuries. That led to last winter’s overhaul, to both the roster and the coaching staff. Still Razov said the old coach deserves much of the credit for this year’s success.
“LAFC would not be in as good a place if it wasn’t for the structure that was built by Bob,” he said. “I will argue that till the end of my time. I was fortunate to work with him and the club is fortunate that he was there.”
But, he added “football changes with time, voices, situations. It would be easy to just say, ‘Yeah, you plug in a new voice.’ And that may be a part of it.”
In other words, sometimes the same message resonates differently if it’s said with a smile instead of a scowl. Cherundolo’s insistence that the best is still ahead for his streaking team is already taking root.
“We don’t feel like we’re clicking on all cylinders right now,” Ryan Hollingshead, one of the team’s new starters, said earlier this month. “We don’t feel like we’re playing to our ability, we’re not playing as well as we can play. There’s still a lot of things we think we can tighten up.
“And that’s a scary thought.”