Philadelphia Union and LAFC meet on Saturday for the championship and are led by two of the best young coaches in the league
Not since 2003 has MLS Cup been contested between two No 1 seeds. The Major League Soccer playoffs almost always produce shocks, but Saturday’s showpiece between Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union was predicted by many to materialise. If LAFC have been the unstoppable force in 2022, Philly have been the immovable object. In terms of quality, the 2022 MLS Cup final has the potential to be the best ever.
Steve Cherundolo and Jim Curtin are probably the best two head coaches in MLS too. LAFC and Philly will have plenty of star power to showcase down the road from Hollywood this weekend, but the men on the touchline deserve top billing – they are the reason their teams have made it this far.
In Curtin’s case, that is certainly true. The Philadelphia Union have the second-lowest wage bill ($10.36m) in MLS, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming an Eastern Conference superpower – Philly won the Supporters’ Shield in 2020 and made the conference final last season as second seeds. That success has earned Curtin a reputation as one of the sharpest tacticians working in the American game.
Philly could, and perhaps should, have won the Supporters’ Shield this year too, only losing out to LAFC on number of wins when almost every other league in the world uses goal difference as a tiebreaker. The Union, not LAFC, may well be MLS’s most complete team having finished the regular season with the best attacking and defensive record.
The eight years of Curtin’s Philadelphia Union tenure haven’t all been as successful as the last few. In fact, the 43-year-old insists he was close to being fired as recently as 2018 when Philly won just two of nine fixtures to open the season. Had they lost to Montreal in a match in May of that year, Curtin might not have lasted. “I bet money if I lost that game, I was fired. You could feel it,” he said. The Union won, however, and Curtin is now the second longest-serving MLS manager.
Victory on Saturday would be the culmination of Curtin’s time as Philadelphia Union head coach, the end point of a long process that has turned Philly into a ferocious high-pressing, high-energy outfit capable of running through opponents at will. However, these traits are also shared by Los Angeles FC who are similarly reflective of their head coach.
Compared to that of Curtin, Cherundolo’s managerial path has been short, reaching MLS Cup in his first season as LAFC coach. Unlike Curtin, the USMNT defender inherited a squad with the talent to compete, but his appointment at the start of the year came amid challenging circumstances. Many expected a rebuild after the apparent end of a cycle under Bob Bradley.
Rather than rebuilding Bradley’s team, though, Cherundolo revitalised it. He opted for evolution over revolution, retaining much of the tactical framework that had made LAFC so successful for so long. This was coupled with a shrewd approach to recruitment from general manager John Thorrington who brought in proven MLS performers (like Kellyn Acosta) at the start of the year to provide a solid foundation and added to it with star names (like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini) signed in the summer.
“If you look at the style and the success that LAFC had in the first four years, it was great,” Cherundolo said. “I think I would be pretty naive to try to change all that.” Bradley’s fingerprints are still all over this team, but Cherundolo’s pragmatism was exactly what the club needed to move forward again.
Neither Cherundolo’s nor Curtin’s reputation will be made or broken by what happens at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday, but glory for either of them will be emblematic of a new, rising generation of American soccer coaches. The USMNT’s current crop of players is the strongest the country has ever produced and the same could be said of its managers.
It’s not just Cherundolo and Curtin who make up this new generation. Josh Wolff has caught the eye, taking Austin FC from second-bottom of the West to the conference final in the space of just 12 months, while Pat Noonan has turned FC Cincinnati from Wooden Spoon winners into playoff threats in the same timeframe. LA Galaxy’s Greg Vanney has also achieved a lot in MLS for a manager who is still only 48.
These names would almost certainly be mentioned as potential USA head coaches should the 2022 World Cup go badly for Gregg Berhalter and his team. Berhalter is already under pressure with many fans fearful of a disappointing showing in Qatar. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a change could happen after the World Cup and the sight of Cherundolo or Curtin lifting MLS Cup this weekend might provide some comfort that the future of American soccer may well still be in good hands.