Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra are all expected to provide veteran leadership at the World Cup, but one player whose leadership qualities will also be counted upon is Steve Cherundolo.
Cherundolo is heading towards the third World Cup of his career, and the experience gained from playing in the last two editions, as well as playing in Europe for 11 seasons, are reasons he is being counted on as an integral part of the U.S. national team.
"He is a true professional," said head coach Bob Bradley. "He brings experience. He brings a balanced good sense of the game and the team at all times. He's an essential part of that core of leaders in our team because he may not always be the one that's up in the front, but he's the one that always sees little details, always at the right time interjects things that need to be considered.
"It's a product of somebody who has done it right. He went away, he's been in a professional enviroment, he's understood what it means to be consistent to stay on the field, to play week in and week out, to be with a club where people expect a lot of you. In that regard, he doesn't get the recognition on the outside, but he's a true professional and an important part of everything we do."
Despite missing several qualifiers, the 2007 Gold Cup and last year's Confederations Cup due to injury, Cherundolo has been the first-choice starter at right back for much of this cycle. When healthy, the 31-year-old has typically provided sturdy defending and veteran leadership, with the latter being a facet of Cherundolo's game that he understands will be relied heavily upon this summer.
"I need to help paint a picture (for the younger guys), 'look guys, this is what it is going to be like. Don't be surprised. Don't be in awe. Go out there and do your thing and we'll try to win every game,'" said Cherundolo.
One of the players that Cherundolo will be mentoring is Jonathan Spector, who has been and will be competing with him for the starting right back position this summer. With Cherundolo sidelined, Spector took advantage of the opportunity handed to him in last summer's Confederations Cup, providing solid defense and pinpoint crossing.
Since that tournament, Cherundolo and Spector have split starts at right back. With the World Cup looming, and with cohesiveness being a trait Bradley offen talks about, a decision on who to start on the right side of defense will soon be made.
Regardless of who is higher on the depth chart, both players have shown a mutual respect for one another. Spector has labeled the competition a healthy one, while Cherundolo has had nothing but positives to say about his teammate and competitor.
"Jonathan is a great player. Last summer at the Confederations Cup (with him) the back line did excellent," said Cherundolo. "It is just one of those decisions the coach is going to have to make. We're both capable of playing. I think it's the coach's time to figure out which group functions the best together. Whether I play or he plays, we both support each other."
The World Cup isn't the only thing Cherundolo is looking forward to. After spending all of his 11 professional seasons with Hannover 96, Cherundolo will become a free agent this summer, and he has not ruled out the possibility of finding a new club.
"My contract is up this summer so they'll make me an offer I assume in the next week or so," said Cherundolo. "But I don't have to stay. It would also be nice towards the end of my career to maybe see something new. On the other hand, I've been through so much with one club, it would be amazing to retire there too."
Perhaps the most difficult season Cherundolo endured with the club was the last one. Cherundolo not only had to deal with the death of long time teammate and starting goalkeeper Robert Enke since November, but he took part in the club's fight against relegation for much of the season.
It wasn't until the final weekend of the season that Hannover secured its status as a club in Germany's top flight, posting a 3-0 road victory against VfL Bochum. For Cherundolo, the feeling of avoiding the drop was a huge accomplishment for he and the club.
"It was like winning the championship for us," said Cherundolo. "Considering all the ups and downs we had for the last season, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and we got through it. I was really proud of the fans, the city, just everybody in Hannover the way they presented themselves towards the end of the season. Everybody came together, which needs to happen in a situation like that, and it worked out so we were ecstatic."
As big as avoiding relegation was, enjoying a good World Cup run would likely feel just as sweet for Cherundolo, especially after the three-and-out showing in 2006.
Whether Cherundolo claims the starting right back spot or not remains to be seen, but even if he doesn't, the veteran savvy and leadership he will provide will likely see him gain more recognition and admiration. Even if it doesn't come from the outside.