CARSON, Calif. – Mauricio Cienfuegos may stand just 5-foot-6, but during his days donning the LA Galaxy shirt, he was a giant.
During his 10 years with the Galaxy, Cienfuegos was quite literally a maestro on the field as he provided the engine that made the team’s offense flourish. Whether it was with his clever passing ability or his ability to contort the trajectory of the ball when launching free kicks into the back of the net, Cienfuegos was as unassuming as he was brilliant.
“If you saw him walking down the street, you’d never think that this man possessed the athletic qualities and the brain of a world class midfielder,” said former Galaxy defender Alexi Lalas. “Yet he’d go on the soccer field and control the tempo and dictate play in a way that was incredible to watch.”
Clinical whenever he stepped on the field, Cienfuegos amassed a stat line that puts him up with the league’s all-time greats. During his eight years with the Galaxy, Cienfuegos played 206 regular season matches and tallied 35 goals and 80 assists while earning three MLS Best XI nods and being named to the MLS All-Star Game seven times.
In the postseason, he was clutch as he tallied seven goals and an MLS record 14 assists in 35 postseason games while helping the Galaxy to four MLS Cup appearances and the club’s first MLS Cup title in 2002. Winning the first MLS Cup title for the Galaxy was a crowning achievement for the Salvadorian soccer legend, but the chance to play in the league’s first title game in 1996 was an accomplishment that still brings back vivid memories.
“Just a [month] ago my daughter, who just celebrated her 15th birthday, and wasn’t even on this planet back then, was watching the highlights from the game on YouTube and all these memories started flooding back,” said Cienfuegos of the final that took place at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts nearly 17 years ago. “It’s a bit sad remembering that game cause what I remember about that game is the fact that we could have won that game and we were dominating the game and how we let it go in the last few minutes.”
Although the Galaxy were not victorious in that first MLS Cup final, it did little to detract from Cienfuegos’ status as a Los Angeles soccer icon. Cienfuegos stood as a model for those in the Salvadorian community—and people of all nationalities — in Southern California and beyond, who still stop the 45-year-old for photos and autographs when he’s spotted on the StubHub Center concourse.
One of those children, who were inspired by Cienfuegos’ skillful play, was 19-year-old Galaxy Homegrown defender Oscar Sorto. When Sorto was just six, his father would take him to observe Cienfuegos and the rest of the 2000 Galaxy team while they trained at McAllister Field near the campus of USC.
At those practices just blocks from his home in South Central Los Angeles, Sorto’s father would point out the Salvadorian international and implore his son to notice his movement with and without the ball.
“I remember [my dad] telling me, ‘look at that player, he’s a smart player’,” said Sorto of his observation of Cienfuegos after being signed by the club in December. “He told me, ‘I want you to be one of those important players.' That’s the only thing that I remember. It was one of the moments that really motivated me because even though it’s hard, seeing a pro team train across the street from my home is something that helped me decide to become a soccer player.”
These days Cienfuegos tries to inspire young players in a more active way just as he unknowingly stirred that young boy back then. A career in coaching had always interested the former midfield maestro and four years after hanging up his boots in 2003 he got his first chance to serve as the manager of a professional club. In December 2007, Cienfuegos began his coaching career, taking charge of Salvadorian first division side Nejapa. However, his stint as head coach of the club lasted less than a year as he stepped down to protect his players, who had gone months without payment.
Now 45, Cienfuegos has returned to the Galaxy as a technical coach in the team’s academy—a position that he has held since June 2011— as he looks to help the team identify and develop players from the ages of 11 to 13.
“Right now I’m collaborating with the Galaxy and the Academy and trying to help find and develop future players in this country and for the LA Galaxy,” said Cienfuegos. “In those age groups, you can really impact somebody’s development and growth in soccer.
“I had talks with the Galaxy and I realized there was more need for good coaching with the younger groups because they are sponges and absorb so much information which can really impact somebody’s development.”
The maestro may have hung up his boots long ago and he may be a little greyer and older now than he was when he was terrorizing MLS defenses, but ask someone that played alongside Cienfuegos and those days seem as clear as yesterday.
“Cienfuegos was a guy that could see things on the field and create things on set pieces. He was an incredibly inventive player, who could create situations out of nothing,” said former Galaxy teammate Robin Fraser. “His movement off the ball was as good as anyone that I’ve ever seen and his ability to execute passes is as good as anyone who has ever played in MLS.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com