Steve Cherundolo was a standout at the University of Portland under former U.S. Under-23 Men's national Team coach Clive Charles when he made a premature exit after his sophomore season to go play in Germany. Despite the initial homesickness one might expect in moving from the West Coast of the U.S. to the middle of Germany, the move has been a good one for 23-year-old native of San Diego, Calif.
After spending almost all of 2000 on the bench after a knee injury dashed his chance to compete in the Olympics in Sydney, he bounced back to earn a starting role in his fourth full season with Hannover 96 of the German Second Division. Hannover would go on to earn promotion to the Bundesliga, and Cherundolo was rewarded with a contract that will keep him there through 2005. And just as his injury two years ago was bad luck, the injury to midfielder Chris Armas created a spot for him on the U.S. World Cup Team, and he's ready to contribute in any way he can. The soft-spoken, but punk rock- listening defender talks about his first few seasons in Germany in another installment of "Making it to the Show."
Steve Cherundolo knew that he wouldn't have a very long career in college soccer. As a Soccer America Super 11 recruit coming out of Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego, Cherundolo had his pick of schools. And he picked the University of Portland and its easy-going coach Clive Charles. But straight away he told Charles he didn't intend to stay there all four years.
"I went to college and let Clive know going in that I wanted to be a pro," said Cherundolo. "He told me that when I was ready, he would let me know."
It didn't take long for Charles to tell Cherundolo that he was ready. He was named West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year in 1997, and the next season he was one of the top players in the nation. It became painfully clear that if Cherundolo wanted to fulfill his enormous potential that he needed to move to the next level.
For Cherundolo that next level was in Germany. In January 1999, after one-and-a-half years of college, Cherundolo signed a professional contract wtih Hannover 96, then in Germany's second division. As could be expected, leaving family, friends and the English language to pursue soccer in a foreign country wasn't the easiest adjustment for the young defender.
"I was treated as another young player. Being an American didn't change the situation much, except for the language barrier," said Cherundolo. "It was difficult at first being 19 and being alone. Luckily I played right away and that helped. But I still wasn't completely happy the first year there. But I stuck it out and my family really supported me, and now I am happy I stayed."
Cherundolo started the first four games of the 1999-2000 season for Hannover, before being called in to make his U.S. international debut against Jamaica on Sept. 8, 1999. A regular starter before leaving for duty with his country, Cherundolo arrived back in Germany to learn that he was no longer a starter. He battled back to earn his starting job, but days after returning from Olympic qualifying in Hershey, Pa., Cherundolo was tackled from behind by a teammate in training. That major knee injury forced Cherundolo to miss the rest of the club season as well as the 2000 Olympics.
"I was real disappointed to miss out on the Olympics," Cherundolo said. "We had a good group of guys, a great coach and I really was looking forward to playing with them. But I couldn't and I used that as motivation to get fit again."
The following season (2000-01), Cherundolo recovered from his injury to break into the line-up in November and appeared in 19 of the team's last 22 matches.
A coaching change was made prior to the 2001-02 season, and the results for Hannover and for Cherundolo couldn't have been any better.
"This team was ready for promotion two years ago, and for whatever reason we didn't click," said Cherundolo. "This year we built one win on the next and after a while no one could catch us. Everything that could have gone right did go right."
Hannover dominated the German Second Division, easily winning promotion to the Bundesliga. Cherundolo was a major reason for Hannover's success this season. He played in 30 league matches, starting each one, tallying one goal and starting two matches in the German Cup. The first half of the season was like a dream. At midseason, Cherundolo was named by Kicker as one of the top wing defenders in the Second Division. He scored his first goal in a Hannover kit against SV Babelsberg on Oct. 14, 2001. His play helped Hannover finish the first half of the season without a loss. And it helped them claim a spot in the Bundesliga.
"It's a great situation going into the top flight as a starter," said Cherundolo. "It's great for me to be able to gain experience in the Bundesliga. The city is really excited, and so is the club. Everyone is going into next season with a real positive attitude, and hopefully we'll get the job done and stay up for as long as we can."
After recovering from the serious knee injury that sidelined him for much of 2000, Cherundolo became a major player on the U.S. Men's National Team, playing consistently at right back. He started seven of the team's 10 final round World Cup qualifiers, including six straight at one point.
Cherundolo made a mark with the U.S. Men's National Team in 2001, and now he hopes his chance in the World Cup this year is just the beginning of a long international career.
"I certainly hope this is my chance," said Cherundolo. "It's any player's wish (to have a long international career). I've been with the team for about a year now, and things have gone pretty well. Hopefully this is the beginning of a long career with the national team."
On May 17, when he learned that he was selected to be a member of the U.S. World Cup Team, the disappointment from the Sydney miss was tempered.
"Making the World Cup roster makes up for the Olympics in every way," said Cherundolo. I was very disappointed that I didn't get to go to Sydney because I had so many friends on the team. We had a great coach in Clive Charles as well, but unfortunately injury held me back. But this is much better."
"This" is the World Cup. This is sport's biggest stage. And less than four years after leaving Portland for Germany Steve Cherundolo feels right at home.
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder ("Nike Road to Korea" according to Larry King)
2) Word Association (w/ MNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel)
3) At the Movies (w/ MNT midfielder DaMarcus Beasley)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ Philips World Cup reporter and "Survivor: Africa" celeb Ethan Zohn)
5) Making it to the Show (w/ MNT defender Steve Cherundolo)
6) Mark That Calendar (The Opening Round -- June 5, June 10 and June 14)
7) Point/Counterpoint (w/ Soccer Broadcasters Ty Keough and Rob Stone)
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (General World Cup trivia)
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