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WEEK ONE DOWN

LAFC opened training camp on Tuesday, Jan. 18 and trained hard for three days this week before taking a day to rest on Friday. With the majority of players in camp, and more players being added to the roster, new head coach Steve Cherundolo was pleased with the first three training sessions.

“It has been fantastic,” Cherundolo said. “The guys have been very receptive. They are full of energy and it has been a real positive atmosphere.”

Midfielder Ilie Sanchez, an MLS veteran who joined the Black & Gold from Sporting Kansas City has noticed right away the good feelings as the Cherundolo era has kicked off at training camp.

“Personally, I feel great,” Sanchez said. “My teammates and staff have welcomed me in a great way. I feel we are all working toward the same goal. I am happy to be here and ready for more.”

Sanchez also has enjoyed the atmosphere that Cherundolo and the coaching staff are quickly trying to install – a loose feeling on the field that allows players to be creative with the ball and remember why they started playing the game to begin with – because it is fun to kick a ball around with your friends.

“I think I could feel this energy both on and off the field right away,” Sanchez said. “When you come into practice and you know you are going to focus on having the ball and trying to play around with the ball, and work on creating chances with the ball – that gives you joy. I think we are all here because we started playing in our childhood with a ball, and I think Steve wants us to feel that joy here. Of course, we are here to win games, but the closest way to win is if we enjoy what we do.”

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INJURY UPDATE

The Black & Gold opened the preseason with several players working their way back from major injuries suffered during the 2021 season. Mahala Opoku, who missed the majority of 2021 after suffering an MCL injury early in the year while on loan to the USL’s Las Vegas Lights has proven that he is ready to continue his momentum that started when he scored the game-winning goal in LAFC’s 2020 Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal match vs. Cruz Azul, firing in a half-volley in the 71st minute to put the Black & Gold into the semifinal.

“Mahala has joined us in training, he is very nearly 100 percent back,” Cherundolo said. “I anticipate him being a part of the group from day one.”

Eddie Segura, who suffered an ACL injury in July, 2020 and underwent surgery in early August, continues to progress in his rehabilitation, drawing top reviews from his new coach for the hard work he is putting toward recovery.

“Eddie is on track and ahead of schedule,” Cherundolo said. “It is a credit to him and our training and medical staff that he is progressing with his situation. I am not sure if he will be ready for the beginning of the season, but we are ahead of schedule and all signs so far are positive that he will make a 100 percent recovery.”

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WINNING MENTALITY

When LAFC acquired defender Franco Escobar from Atlanta United on Dec. 12, the Club was excited to add a versatile, solid defender in his prime with MLS and international experience. But one of the main reasons Cherundolo and LAFC Co-President & General Manager John Thorrington were drawn to Escobar was his winning pedigree.

He scored two goals in the 2018 MLS Playoffs, including a goal in the MLS Cup Final against Portland to help Atlanta win the MLS Cup. He scored a game-winning goal for Atlanta in a 2019 Playoff game vs. New England, and also helped Atlanta to the 2019 Campeones Cup with a win over Club America and to the 2019 U.S. Open Cup trophy.

“We’ve seen this already in the first few days of the preseason,” Cherundolo said. “He is a winner, and a proven winner. He is an MLS Champion, and he is bringing that mentality to the training field every day. It is so important for our younger players to see that, to see what it takes to be a winner.”

Cherundolo also praised Escobar’s versatility and ability to play multiple positions – including all over the defense and in midfield if necessary.

“Players who can play multiple positions are extremely valuable,” Cherundolo said. “He will be playing a lot because of his versatility. Exactly where we haven’t decided yet, but he will be on the field.”

For his part, Escobar thinks of himself more as a central defender – but he is ready to fit in wherever Cherundolo and the team need him.

“My goal is always to defend,” Sanchez said. “I consider myself a fast and aggressive player on defense, and on offense I try to find openings that lead to a goal and I was able to do that in Atlanta. But overall, my main characteristic is to provide solid defense on the back line.”

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FOLLOWING THE LEADER

LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo enjoyed one of the most decorated careers of any American soccer player. He played the right back position better than anyone for the U.S. National Team, earning a spot in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. He also established himself with an unprecedented 15-year career in the German Bundesliga with Hannover 96 before retiring and moving into the coaching ranks.

After playing the position so well, Cherundolo is stepping in to guide an LAFC team that did suffer defensive lapses in key moments last season, and boasts several young outside defenders in Escobar, Marco Farfan, Julian Gaines, Kim Moon Hwan and Diego Palacios.

How will Cherundolo teach his old position to his new players?

“I am quite picky with outside backs,” Cherundolo said. “They don’t have to be a copycat of how I interpreted the position, everyone is different and has different tools and interprets the position differently. But, I do have high expectations for outside backs of course. Maybe the outside backs here will listen to me a little bit more because they understand that I am somebody who has played that position as well.”

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WHAT BROUGHT ILIE TO L.A.

Ilie Sanchez is a five-year MLS veteran, and at 31, the Barcelona native comes to Los Angeles after over eight years spent playing in Spain and Germany.

But when it was time for Sanchez to choose the next step in his football journey as an MLS free agent – he made the decision to join the Black & Gold.

Four difficult years of playing against the new Western Conference foe while in Kansas City helped make the decision of where to go a little bit easier.

“There were two main reasons I chose LAFC,” Sanchez explained. “The first one is because when I had to face LAFC for four years, I always found the games very difficult to play in. It was not just difficult to win, but to be the main team on the field. That is something I really appreciate in an opponent -  the teams that want to be the main team on the field. I respect those teams that want to be around the ball and steal the ball. That is what LAFC does, and I thought I could fit into the system and the adaption process would be smooth.”

But it was the supporters in the North End who were the ones who really helped seal the deal for Sanchez.

“The other main reason I came is because of the fans,” Sanchez said. “Coming to the Banc Stadium and playing in front of the fans and hearing them from the first minute to the 90th minute was incredible. I remember being up 3-0 here with Sporting, and the fans were still cheering loud in the whole second half, no matter the score, pushing the team to do better. That really sticks with me, and this is something I value and why I wanted to come to LAFC.”

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