San Diego's Steve Cherundolo given unique coaching opportunity with LAFC affiliate

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FILE - In a June 21, 2010 file photo, U.S. national soccer defender Steve Cherundolo smiles during a news conference in Irene, South Africa. Cherundolo said Wednesday, March 19, 2014 that he is retiring because of persistent knee injuries. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)
Steve Cherundolo has signed a unique deal to serve as LAFC's affiliate in the second-tier USL Championship. (Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Steve Cherundolo is more comfortable blazing new paths than he is following ones already well worn.

He spent his professional soccer career in Germany, beginning at a time when few Americans played there. He coached for two clubs and the national team program in Germany despite the fact few Americans have coached there.

Now the former San Diego high school star has returned to Southern California to break more new ground as manager of the Las Vegas Lights, who have signed a unique deal to serve as LAFC’s affiliate in the second-tier USL Championship.

The partnership, which had been waiting on USL approval, is expected to be formally announced Friday morning.

“It is all a work in progress,” said Cherundolo, who played in two World Cups for the U.S. “But I think the idea is fantastic.”

The idea is Cherundolo and his players will live and train in Southern California but play home games in Las Vegas. That will allow the players and staff to interact with LAFC’s first team on a daily basis while competing for an established club beginning its fourth season in the USL.

“There will be a close relationship. How close, we’ll figure that out as we go,” said Cherundolo, 42. “It’s just really well thought out and planned. And I’m going to do everything in my power to make it work.”

LAFC had a short-lived affiliate relationship with the Orange County Soccer Club that was never really comfortable for either side. LAFC wanted more control over how players it loaned down would be used; OCSC wanted the freedom to choose its starting lineups and to enter into partnerships with other clubs, such as the one it enjoys now with Rangers of the Scottish Premiership.

With the Lights, LAFC will provide coaches and players while club ownership in Las Vegas will run the business side. That will free Cherundolo to teach a style that mimics the pressing, ball-control game Bob Bradley — his coach in the 2010 World Cup — plays with LAFC.

“That makes a lot of sense to everyone,” said Cherundolo, a defender in his playing days. “The players have to understand the principles that LAFC practices regularly in the first team. Once players understand the principles of play that are practiced in the first team, then I’ve done my job and they will be able to move up without missing a beat.”

The affiliate relationship is part of a wider player-development strategy for LAFC, which announced earlier this month it had joined Real So Cal in the formation of LAFC So Cal Youth, a partnership that will affect as many as 4,000 players in the Real So Cal and West Valley Soccer League programs.

LAFC’s development academy, which launched in 2016 — two years before its first game — has built slowly and now includes five teams from U-12 to U-17. Two academy products, Christian Torres and Erik Dueñas, played for the first team last season.

Cherundolo’s job will be to continue that momentum while walking the fine line all affiliate coaches must walk between teaching a particular style and developing those with the most potential. Oh, and also trying to win.

“It’s getting kids ready or getting players ready for the next level. And in that case, it would be LAFC,” said Cherundolo, who returned to California from Germany last Saturday. “But it’s also making sure you find the right balance to be successful. You don’t have to win every game, but you have to win enough games to be successful, to make sure that everybody’s buying into this project.

“So it really is kind of a balancing act of doing both, developing and also being successful.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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