Since arriving at Los Angeles Football Club in 2019, midfielder Jose Cifuentes has ingrained himself into LAFC's starting lineup. In 2022, Cifuentes established himself as integral to the Club’s success, appearing in 19 of LAFC's 20 matches, starting 15 of them. The Ecuadorian National Team member has six goals and four assists this season, including three goals in LAFC's last two games against the Galaxy and Nashville SC. Cifuentes was named to the MLS Team of the Week bench after Week 19 and made the starting lineup for the team on the strength of his game-winning goal in Nashville on July 17. Cifu's first TOTW appearance was after Week 17, meaning he has now earned accolades three times in the last six weeks, a clear indication that the midfielder is rounding into great form when it matters most.
“Cifu is an incredibly talented player,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said. “The sky is the limit for him. He is a complete player.”
Cifuentes, 23, may not be joining Carlos Vela, Ilie Sanchez and Diego Palacios in Minnesota for the MLS All Star Game later this month, but he has contributed to LAFC on an All-Star level this season, rising to the challenge that Cherundolo and the coaching staff set for him at the beginning of the season. In 2021, Cifuentes notched five goals and six assists in 32 appearances, 26 of which he started for LAFC. He took 64 shots, putting 17 on target and posted a 79.9% passing percentage.
“If you look at the beginning of the season [Cifu] wasn’t playing every week,” Cherundolo said. There were things we weren’t happy with, and we explained it to him and gave him solutions. He has answered us and found those solutions and used them and applied them into his game.”
This season, Cifu is on pace register career-highs in just about every statistical category. He already has more goals and assists than he did last year in a little more than half the minutes played (2321 minutes in 2021, 1346 minutes in 2022), his passing percentage is above 80% (81.1%) and he's put 16 shots on target in just 36 attempts, meaning his attempts are consistently more dangerous this year than in 2021.
“He is one of the few players in our league who can play every position in the middle of the park,” Cherundolo said. “Both offensively and defensively – he is solid.”
Before the Nashville SC match on July 17, Cherundolo praised Cifuentes for the progression that he's made from this season to last, naming him as "arguably LAFC's most important player" in 2021, but making it clear that the young players inconsistency on the pitch was holding him back from reaching the next level.
“It is now a matter of him being able to play consistently at a high level,” Cherundolo said. “He has done that the last couple of weeks. We will push him and challenge him as far as he wants to go so he can continue to improve.”
At the top of his game, Cifuentes is a constant presence in the center of the pitch. He's winning balls, moving the ball into the attacking third and combining well with his teammates. So far in 2022, he is answering the challenge Cherundolo and the coaching staff laid out for him in the preseason.
"This year, we've challenged Cifu to play consistently well,” Cherundolo said. “We all know what Cifu looks like on a good day, but can he reduce the amount of games where he's not helping affect the game or he isn't winning a lot of balls in the middle of the park like he is capable of. Getting him to show his stronger attributes more consistently on the field has been our challenge – and so far he has responded. That is the next step in his career.”
Cifuentes has answered the call in a big way so far this season. When Cifu isn't scoring, his defensive intensity is at the highest level it has been since he donned the Black & Gold. Cifu had six yellow cards in all of 2021, but he has already matched last season's yellow card count in just 19 games played, showcasing a more physical style of play and willingness to take chances in order to win back possession.
While he continues to look to improve, the step forward that LAFC’s new #20 has taken this season is a huge reason why LAFC is sitting in first place.