With 15 seasons in the books, MLSsoccer.com looks back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. We continue our "What Ever Happened To..." series with highly decorated seven-time All-Star Mauricio Cienfuegos.
Where He Was Then
At 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, Mauricio Cienfuegos didn’t strike anyone as intimidating – until he put on his cleats.
Cienfuegos began his MLS career in Los Angeles after being the third player assigned to Los Angeles for the inaugural 1996 MLS season. At the time of his retirement in 2003, he was one of two remaining inaugural season Galaxy players along with teammate Cobi Jones. Cienfuegos appeared in 206 MLS games with 198 starts in eight seasons. He scored 35 goals and earned 80 assists with the Galaxy.
With Cienfuegos as No. 10 in the lineup, the Galaxy was a dominant force in MLS capturing all three major regional championships, including the 2002 MLS Cup Championship, 2001 U.S. Open Cup and 2000 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. In addition, the Galaxy advanced to the league semifinals six times (1996, 1998, ’99, ’00, 01, 02) and played in four MLS Cups (1996, 1999, 2001 and 2002).
An instrumental figure in MLS history, Cienfuegos was named three times to the MLS’ Pepsi Best Eleven in 1996, 1998 and 1999. Always a fan favorite, Cienfuegos was voted six times to participate in the MLS All-Star Game (1996-01). He also garnered several team awards winning the club’s 1997 Most Valuable player, plus the 2001 and 2002 Humanitarian of the Year awards.
A member of El Salvador’s National Team from 1987-2000, Cienfuegos appeared in over 75 international matches. He participated in World Cup Qualifying in 1994 and 1998. He also played with the national team in the 1995 UNCAF Tournament and the 1996 and 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cups.
Cienfuegos, who grew up playing in the streets of San Salvador, El Salvador, played professional soccer player for 18 years. He made his professional debut with Racing Junior of El Salvador in 1985. He went on to play professionally in El Salvador with C.D. Syanpango (1986-87), Luis Angel Firpo (1988-91, 1993-95), and also in Mexico with Morelia (1991-92) and Santos Laguna (1992-93).
Where He Is Now
During the fall, the pigskin is king in the Cienfuegos home in the San Gabriel Valley.
Seventeen-year-old Lester straps on the pads and saunters onto the football field under the Friday night lights, his 5-foot-10, 275-pound frame carving a daunting figure in the Bishop Alemany High School offensive and defensive lines.
The elder Cienfuegos, his wife and their 15- and 13-year-old daughters sit in the stands and watch the younger Cienfuegos go to work, a bit of a role-reversal considering that back when dad was playing pro soccer with the LA Galaxy from 1996 to 2003, it was the son who would watch from the stands or on the practice field.
“Lester would go with me to Galaxy training sessions and he would play with [Jorge] Campos or [Kevin] Hartman in goal,” recalled Cienfuegos. “But he started playing American football and liked it. He’s also got the body for it. It’s a sport with a lot of risk, but he enjoys playing it.”
Cienfuegos has become a bit of a gridiron fanatic. Still, nothing can replace his love for the beautiful game.
“I’m never going to stop watching a soccer game for a football game,” he said.
As a matter of fact, when Cienfuegos isn’t passing the time reading motivational books or biographies on important figures, he’s taking in all sorts of soccer: matches on TV, or live college, MLS and international matches around the LA area, where he and his family reside.
He even helps a friend coach a youth team in the area, mostly to try out new training techniques he can later adapt to an adult squad and to keep his managerial chops warm.
Coaching is something that Cienfuegos – or “Chencho” as he’s commonly known – has wanted to do ever since his time with Luis Ángel Firpo, the Salvadoran club with which he won three league titles. There, he would frequently work with midfielders and forwards. Even with the Galaxy, Sigi Schmid, his coach, knew Cienfuegos was interested in coaching and would sometimes let him work with some of the younger guys.
Coaching gave Cienfuegos something to look forward to after his retirement from professional soccer in 2003.
For 18 years, the diminutive midfielder had graced the fields in El Salvador, Mexico and the US. Regarded as one of the best playmakers of his era, Cienfuegos was a true No. 10, the proverbial link between the defense and offense. His vision and touch his greatest assets, he threaded passes all around the pitch with a fine needle.
While most with a storied career such as Cienfuegos would have milked a couple of more years off the pro ranks, the diminutive Salvadoran knew that at 34, after just having won the 2002 MLS Cup with LA and as his playing time slowly dwindled, the end of his career was fast approaching.
“After the 2002 MLS Cup, I sat down with my wife and kids and I told them I had won almost everything with the team,” said Cienfuegos. “As a player, I had accomplished a lot of things. And age, it’s not forgiving.”
At the age of 35 and with a cabinet-full of honors, Cienfuegos hung up his boots. By then, he was already at peace with his decision to retire, especially since he had made up his mind that coaching would be his next challenge.
“People ask me if I had trouble making that decision [to retire], but I tell them no,” he said. “When I retired, I fully delved into [managing]. I substituted waking up early to go train with coaching. It helped. I didn’t feel the transition much.”
Cienfuegos didn’t wait too long for his first gig as a professional coach. In December 2007, he was offered the chance to manage Nejapa, a freshly promoted team in El Salvador’s top division. Excited by the quality of their infrastructure, Cienfuegos took on the job. He was there for 227 days in total, but in that short time, he experienced the sweet highs and bitter lows of a being a manager.
“They were an unknown team,” said Cienfuegos. “They had just been promoted and were fighting relegation. But I felt that with the right working conditions, we could achieve something.”
In his first tournament in charge, Cienfuegos led the Tirafuegos (Firethrowers) to an eighth-place finish in the Clausura 2008 and kept them from being relegated back to the second division. Things quickly changed, however.
The club owed the players a couple months’ salary. Unmotivated, the team dropped three consecutive games to open up the Apertura 2008. In August of that year, Cienfuegos, troubled by the players’ situation, opened up to the press about the club’s economic problems and revealed that he had quit because his charges hadn’t been paid.
“Until then, we had no complaints [about the players],” recalled Cienfuegos. “But after two months of not getting paid … they weren’t the same. I understood them because I was also a player and, at some point, lived through the same thing. With what face was I going to ask them to make an effort?”
Now 43, the coaching bug is still well alive in Cienfuegos. Since his stint at Nejapa, he has spent time traveling to observe and talk to some of the sport’s greatest minds as he continues to learn the trade because, he says, “Soccer is like the medical field: If you don’t stay up to date, you become obsolete.”
In the past couple of years, Cienfuegos has had talks with Salvadoran club CD Águila about coaching the team, but both sides have failed to agree to terms on two occasions. He’d like to return to El Salvador to manage a team there because he has “the little thorn in my side” and “would like to prove to myself that I can make it there.” However, he’s open to offers from anywhere.
“Right now, I feel capable of managing anywhere I’m required to,” said Cienfuegos. “When you’re a manager, you prepare yourself to coach anywhere. If they call me from China, then I’ll go to China. I’m only waiting for a chance. I’m ready to grab the bull by the horns.”
What They Said
“Mauricio was the engine that kept us going. I don’t think there was a blade of grass on the field that he didn’t touch, especially in the offensive end of the field. Mauricio was able to connect the offense to the defense, the defense to the offense, one side of the field to the other side of the field, and he was absolutely tremendous at that.”
– Sigi Schmid, Cienfuegos’ former coach
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