The dynamic right back from San Diego, who has returned from Germany to take charge this season of the Las Vegas Lights -- now Los Angeles FC's USL Championship-based second team -- left Clive Charles' University of Portland side following his sophomore year to sign in 1999 with Hannover 96, and it was a tremendous fit. Cherundolo spent his entire playing career, some 15 seasons, with Die Roten, becoming a huge fan favorite -- nicknamed the “Mayor of Hannover” -- and captaining the side through its greatest successes.
He began his coaching career with Hannover, first as a U-23 assistant coach and in charge of some of the Academy teams, then as a first-team assistant and as head coach of the club's U-17 side before joining his former coach Tayfun Korkut's staff at VfB Stuttgart in 2018.
He has since worked with the U.S. national team during Dave Sarachan's interim stint following the failed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign and with Germany's U-15 national team, and now brings his family -- German-born wife Mandy and their two young daughters -- to his homeland as he takes on his most important coaching assignment.
“It's fantastic to have Steve working here with us,” said LAFC head coach Bob Bradley, who coached Cherundolo with the national team leading to and during the 2010 World Cup. “His experience, his passion for the game ... he's a smart guy throughout the entire time I had the opportunity to work with him with the national team. He was just impressive as a leader, as a player who understood team chemistry, understood the game, and I've always been impressed with the way he has moved into coaching. ...
“For us, it's fantastic to have him on board, and it fits with the idea that we want to use Las Vegas as a really important second team that plays in the same way as LAFC.”
The Lights, who opened their season Wednesday night with 5-0 loss to LA Galaxy II in Carson, California, are run by owner/CEO Brett Lashbrook, whose background includes stints in Major League Soccer's commissioner's office and as chief operating officer during Orlando City SC's transition into MLS. The new agreement has LAFC making all the technical decisions, with the team training in Los Angeles and traveling for home games to Las Vegas.
Cherundolo spoke with Soccer America about his experiences in the Bundesliga, at three World Cups with the national team, his move into coaching and evolution as a coach, and why he's excited for the future of American soccer.
SOCCER AMERICA: What was it about LAFC and the Las Vegas Lights that most excites you, that made you want to be a part of this project?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I think it was a complete package. Cooperating with a club like Las Vegas Lights, an organization with a great fanbase, but also the infrastructure of LAFC and going off the philosophy and the ideas that they've built over the past four years. Really, the complete package. And on top of that, working and living out of L.A. but playing games in Vegas, being part of both communities, was something that was pretty unique and very attractive to me.
SA: It's the first time LAFC has fielded a reserve team. There's going to be a learning curve involved, yes?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: Absolutely. Any new project presents issues, so there's always growing pains, but we see those as opportunities to make things even better going forward and to not maybe do what everybody else has been doing but try to do it different and better. That's our objective. And there are many objectives for our team as well. First and foremost, we want to have a good role in the league and win games, but at the same time we also want to give players lessons and finishing touches moving forward to help them make the next step in their careers. But also for us as a club.
SA: You played for Bob Bradley with the national team. He's done extraordinary work at LAFC. How is it to be working with him again?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: Absolutely [extraordinary]. He's done an incredible job of creating this organization and made it very successful from day one, and Bob's ideas about the game are great, they're positive, they're offensive, they're attractive. But they're also well-thought out, and it's all a very well-balanced way to play this game, which is very in line with my own philosophy, and working with them is a big treat.
He's first and foremost a very dedicated coach, but has an amazing football brain as well, not only understands the game, but he knows a lot about the game historically and has a lot [of history] to go off of. It's somebody I am very excited about learning from and working with at the same time.
SA: You went to Hannover following your sophomore season at the University of Portland, where you played for the late, great Clive Charles. How did working with him impact what you became as a player and also in terms of your thoughts on coaching?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: What I've drawn from Clive to my time now is it's getting younger players ready for the men's game. And that's exactly what he did for me. He took a young, talented player and showed him not only how to become a responsible young man off the field, but also on the field. And those are lessons that I'm very grateful for that I will pass on to the next generation.
SA: What always impressed me most about Clive is that he would prepare his teams during the week, then put the players on the field and have them make the decisions. He wasn't on the sidelines yelling instructions and made very few substitutions, just when necessary, and I've found that those who played under Clive -- on his men's and women's teams -- emerged with really strong soccer minds.
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: Absolutely. And it's 100 percent in line with how I see my job as well. During the week and in training, coaches need to coach, but on game day -- of course, there's something that needs to happen and, of course, you can intervene -- I believe that it's time for the players to grow and to make their decisions. And also to shine. So during the game, it's time for the players and the team to to perform. And during the week, that's when coaches work. And that's how I do my job.
SA: You went to Hannover and never left. That's something that doesn't happen in the game anymore, players who spend their entire careers at one club.
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: No, it doesn't, but for me it was very natural, and in retrospect an amazing blessing. I don't think I dreamed of this, going to Hannover the first time, but each time my contract was up and I'd come into negotiations, I asked myself three simple questions. Am I still improving as a player, is the club still improving as a club and financially as well, and am I still happy as a human being here, am I still improving as a human being, am I making strides in my private life as well? And I was always able to answer all those questions with a yes, every single negotiation, and I found no reason to go anywhere else.
SA: To become a player who can relate with Hannover's fans, whom the fans don't just accept, but favor -- how does that come about?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: The fanbase is incredible and extremely loyal. Being a Hannover fan is not always easy. I think loyalty comes natural to them, and I think for me, it was just engulfing myself in their culture and their city and the language. It was important to become a part of it, first and foremost. And I was able to do that. I understood their perspective much better and understand why they love their club so much and their history. So it was all in all an amazing learning experience and something that will still be a part of my life for the rest of my life. ... I can only say, and in speaking to younger players, to try to have that experience, because it was very gratifying to the end and one that keeps giving back.
SA: You had some real successes at Hannover. Which ones mean the most to you?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: First and foremost, getting Hannover into the first division (by winning the 2.Bundesliga title in 2002) in the fashion we did was pretty amazing, for such a small club and such a small budget at the time. And then staying in the division with pretty much the same team was a great feat. And then from there, just surviving in the league for a few years and then gradually improving step by step as a group, and everybody individually, and also as a team and as a club. Infrastructure got better, we built a new stadium, a training facility, a youth academy, so really in all facets of the club, we were getting more professional and better. And then ultimately qualifying for the Europa League and then playing in that (in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons) was kind of the pinnacle of it, of all of that progress. And then it started to regress after that.
SA: You were wearing the captain's armband when Hannover finished fourth for its best-ever Bundesliga finish in 2011 and when it reached the Europa League quarterfinals. What did it mean to you to be given the armband?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: It means a lot. It means that players will accept you as one of the leaders of the club, the management of the club accepts you, the media, the general population accepts you as one of their own and one of the leaders of the team. So it means a lot to me being an American and being a part of a club that I played my entire career with, [and it occurred] in the times that we were more successful, so I was very proud of it. But at the same time, it was it was never a goal of mine, it was just a natural process that I moved into.
SA: You say, “accepted,” but I think, in terms of the fanbase, “beloved.” The “Mayor of Hannover” thing. It's impressive, especially for an American and in that era, to build that kind of relationship with the supporters.
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: It's something that still makes me ... it's incredible, an incredible feeling. I think what happened was they saw a young player who went over there first, who was not perfect but was always hard-working and had a good mentality and did everything within his means to further his club's endeavors. I think they respected that, they loved that. And then on top of that, what a typical person from Hannover respects is loyalty and persistence. And these are qualities and values that I think are important. And I was always able to show. So I think it was just a match made in heaven from day one.
Steve Cherundolo's 2014 farewell game was attended by 27,000 fans. This sign reads: "Thank you Steve for 15 years of fight and passion."
SA: We've heard much about the “German mindset,” and not always in positive terms. How would you describe it and how is it different from an American mindset?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: Well, I think it's very result-oriented and goal-oriented and has not much to do with maybe how a player is feeling. So it's not exactly personal all the time. It's very goal- and result-oriented based on discipline. I think that's how I would describe it best. The difference between the two? I think the American side, there's maybe more understanding for certain situations of why things are happening, which can be good but can also slow growth.
SA: You made yourself at home in Hannover, married a German woman, and were a face people might know. What can that be like out and about? What are encounters like when the club is doing well or not doing well?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: It can be frustrating. I think when we were finally promoted into the first division, that really started to become a part of my life -- a part of our lives, my wife included -- where we were recognized and asked and at times bothered, but at times catered to, so there's good and bad. It's extremes. It's either good or bad. There's nothing in between.
It's certainly result-oriented, and this is what I was focusing on earlier, talking about those differences, I think the culture is result-oriented, and [it affects] how you would be perceived, but also how you're treated. So for a few years it was real nice, and for a few years it was frustrating.
And I think playing so many years for one club, you're obviously recognized more and more, so toward the end of my career, you know, going out to eat can be [difficult] at times. Sometimes the family just wants to be left alone. And I think that is also a cultural difference: I think the American sports culture and fan culture will leave their stars alone out in public, which does not happen in other parts of the world.
SA: What is the worst an encounter can be?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: Yeah, it could be ... well, the worst is nothing like we've seen over at Schalke [when players were physically attacked after clinching relegation to the second division]. That would probably be the worst, where fans are actually physically getting after the players. It's been close. We had lost, I think, a derby game against our rival Braunschweig, and fans showed up after the game and, you know, it's very intense. It's very important to the fans, but it's very important to the players as well.
At some point, you have to get on with your everyday life and you have to wake up the next day and move forward. So as much as results sting and how important they are, life will go on, and I think that takes just a little time to get over for some fans and some players as well.
Steve Cherundolo (bottom row, far right) with his 1984 Illinois AYSO team at age 5 before moving to San Diego two years later.
SA: At what point were you thinking you'd go into coaching?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I've always been interested in coaching, and during my playing career it always interested me to hear what coaches say and the different approaches they've taken to coach the teams and running trainings and games and all of that. It always interested me.
Probably towards the end of my career, the last year, I was injured a lot, so that's when I really started thinking about coaching and took the first steps of getting your first license and then taking my first steps to get into coaching.
SA: You stepped into coaching with Hannover pretty quickly after retiring. How much did you learn about the club and the game as a coach that as a player you did not or would not have known?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I think as a player, you see it, you hear a coach every day. But to really understand what a coach goes through and to understand the job or to learn the job, you need to spend time in the job. There's no way to go from one to the other. I don't want to say that's impossible, but for me, it was. I was not ready to jump from my playing career straight into a head-coaching job somewhere in the men's game. So I was very grateful that I was given the opportunity to go to the academy first to try things out, to hone my skills, to learn this job from the bottom up.
SA: You worked with a lot of coaches in your playing days -- I count 17 at Hannover alone -- and got to see various styles and mindsets. How did the way you see the game and your way of coaching evolve?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I certainly have taken something from every coach I've had. And some coaches have been more influential than others. And I would describe in my way of playing as proactive but well balanced in all phases of the game. Which is very much how I viewed myself and liked to present myself on the field. And this is something that I've also taken from all the coaches I've had.
Some coaches have been more balanced in the transition side, some coaches have been strictly defensive coaches, some have been very offensive-minded coaches. So I've tried to take a little bit of all of them to create my own way of playing this game. And what I've come up with in the end and through my UEFA Pro courses, and also a lot of self-reflection, have come to the terms of me just being a very well-balanced human being. And I want my game like that as well.
SA: Which coaches were most influential in your development in becoming a coach?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: Well, I think all of my national team coaches -- Bruce [Arena], Bob and Jurgen [Klinsmann] have been influential. You do spend a lot of time with them, as the national team coach is not one that comes in and out; he usually stays for a few years. So they have that been influential. All three of them are very different in the way they approached the U.S. men's national team, but all three of them were very successful. I've taken something from all of them.
And then my club coaches. At the [youth powerhouse La Jolla] Nomads, I was blessed to have wonderful coaches with Derek Armstrong and David Armstrong, as well as Brian McManus. And Clive Charles in college was very important in helping me go from my youth to a men's player, or a professional player. So that bridge and those lessons in life prepared me for the [top level].
And in the finished game, you know, three coaches I had in Germany: Ralf Rangnick, who most recently ran the Red Bull projects in Leipzig and built that program to be very, very successful. As my coach in Hannover, we were promoted and had a good run. And [current St. Pauli technical director] Ewald Lienen and [German-born former Turkey national-teamer] Tayfun Korkut, whom I played for and worked with at Stuttgart, were also influential for me.
SA: What was it like leaving Hannover to join Korkut at Stuttgart?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: It was very awkward for me, but also a great experience to finally see things from a different perspective. It was very awkward putting on different colors, a different side, [wearing] different training gear. And I think also for the players I was coaching, who I had played against for many years and who I know personally as well, it was awkward for them to see me in different colors. ... It was a very important step for me to do that, to go out and see different things and to maybe bring back something. Everywhere you go as a coach or as a player, you can learn things and implement those into your next job or station.
SA: Let's look at the big events in your national team career. You were in South Korea in 2002 but couldn't play. What's your perspective of that tournament?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: An amazing group, an amazing atmosphere at the tournament, being on the inside. We always had the feeling something special could happen, and it did. And just a very good mix of old, young, experienced, not experienced, the right characters and personalities, but also physical and soccer qualities all matched up together. So the roster building was so good for that tournament.
SA: You got to play in 2006, a very interesting World Cup for the U.S. What did it mean to be able to play in a World Cup in Germany?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: It was an unbelievable event. And I think U.S. Soccer did such a wonderful job for the families, making it a special event off the field.
You know, we were disappointed with our results, but I think the highlight for me was the Italy game, and I think it was quite a positive performance for us. And we showed what we could do. And, unfortunately, we didn't finish off group play with another positive result [against Ghana and was eliminated].
But that's how this game is. It's a game of inches, and I think moving forward four years later, we learned from our mistakes and were able to, you know, continue on with Bob in the positive direction we already had with Bruce, and we we're able to make it out of the group stage.
SA: 2006 is widely seen as disastrous, but I don't see it like that. Throw out the first 30 minutes against the Czech Republic, which was very poor, and I thought the U.S. played well in an extremely difficult group.
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I would agree with you. I do think we were poor against the Czech Republic in the first 30 minutes, but we also played against a very good Czech Republic team that they just had our number that day, and those things happen. I think coming back from that result wasn't easy, because we all had much different expectations. But we did come back very strong and just came up a little short in the end, but it could have very easily gone in the other direction. ...
What a lot of people don't understand is a you're building four years to go to a World Cup, but to perform in a World Cup, [you rely on] performances by players who are in form or not in form in a three-week period. So it's very difficult to judge a country on their level of play after a poor performance, because a lot of things happen in those three weeks.
SA: I've never seen a bigger celebration in American soccer than for Landon's goal to beat Algeria and take you to the round of 16 in 2010. That was a very good World Cup, but Ghana was there again at the end. How much do you hate Ghana?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I don't hate anybody or any country. Ghana had a strong team and strong personalities and a few very, very good individual players and just came out on top, but I think if we play them 10 times, I think maybe we win five, they win five. Its just a very, very close game.
That goal, that moment against Algeria was certainly one of the most exciting moments of my career, and I'll never forget. It was one that we shared on the field and we felt really good about inside the locker room, but also the fans. I didn't really understand how big of a deal that was until I actually saw all the videos afterwards and came home and heard all of the stories. I had no idea being over there how much that moved the United States. Then when we came home and went to the ESPYs and did a few events afterwards, (learning) how much that actually helped move soccer. I had no idea when that actually happened.
SA: We're seeing the fruits of it now, with young American players excelling at big clubs and what that might mean for the national team. How excited are you for the present and the future?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I can't be more excited. I love watching the U.S. men's national team play. I think Gregg [Berhalter] and Earnie [Stewart, U.S. Soccer's sporting director] and everybody involved are doing a great job, and I'm very excited about this new group. Moving forward and getting through qualifying is a huge step. There's a lot of pressure, and it's a huge step, but they're certainly capable of doing it. For the group moving forward. I think the key for them is just becoming a good group and making sure they're a team, because the quality individually they have, now it's just a matter of forming a group of those qualities. I know Gregg will find the right words and make the right decisions in order for us to do that.
SA: It's nice to see American players not only accepted, but desired at big clubs. Are we making advances similarly in coaching, led by Jesse Marsch?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: I certainly hope so. Jesse is capable and he's proven that [and will] get that chance to make the next step in his already fantastic coaching career [by taking charge of Bundesliga side Red Bull Leipzig next season]. He's really a trailblazer. And Bob Bradley has been [successful overseas] as a coach.
There's always somebody who will crack that door open a little bit, and the rest of us have to come up from behind and open it a little further. This is how we've done it for players over the past 20 years, and coaching, it's only a matter of time. It's only inevitable it will happen as well.
SA: Is coaching in Europe important for you, or is a matter of what opportunities come along that are the right opportunities?
STEVE CHERUNDOLO: It's certainly something I'd like to do.
Photos: Courtesy of University of Portland Athletics, Las Vegas Lights, Ann Cherundolo
IMO Cherundolo is easily the most underrated former national team player. His contributon on the field was as significant as Landon Donovan's and demonstrated to me that Cherundolo fully understands the game. His success and leadership at Hannover confirms this.
His coaching success is not a surprise to me.