US SoccerUS Soccer
Steve Cherundolo

From Season to Summer: U.S. Vets Make Club to Country Transition

The life and work schedule of a professional soccer player is anything but normal. For the third straight summer, U.S. players in Europe will transition from grueling club seasons into major summer tournaments. It began with the 2009 Confederations Cup, 2010 World Cup and now this summer, the Gold Cup.

For some, like veteran defender Steve Cherundolo, this means very little rest in between club and national team duties. Cherundolo has been a fixture in the German Bundesliga since 1999, with standout performances year in and year out for Hannover 96 that earned him the captain’s armband for the 2010-11 season. Hannover spent the majority of its season fighting for a coveted spot in the Champions League, putting a unique type of pressure on Cherundolo and the rest of the team.

“The season as a whole was very intense,” said Cherundolo. “Not so much on a stress level because we weren’t fighting against relegation this year, but the tempo in training and the season as a whole was very physically demanding."

“It was different from previous seasons because we were trying to go for a Champions League spot that ended up being just a Europa League spot, which for us was a huge success. I think playing at that level week in and week out was very trying for us.”

After a highly competitive season, Cherundolo will take just four days to recharge his batteries before boarding a transatlantic flight and entering U.S. Men’s National Team camp in preparation for the Gold Cup. This means a vacation will just have to wait, something Cherundolo and his wife Mandy have gotten used to over the years.

“That’s one of the things that you don’t realize before you sign on as a professional soccer player,” continued Cherundolo. “Your life depends on your schedule, and your family and friends’ lives depend on it as well."

“For me in particular, there are only a few more years that I can play at this level with the national team so I’m going to continue to do it until I can’t play anymore. But it will certainly be nice when it’s over one day and I can schedule a vacation when I want and not when I have time off. That’s one of the negative sides of it. But in the end, it’s all worth it.”

For another veteran U.S. player, goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, this year’s European club season didn’t provide the luxury of a set spot in the top league; instead it was a constant battle to avoid relegation. Hahnemann’s club Wolverhampton struggled throughout the season to maintain its position in the English Premier League, leading to both frustration and stress.

“It was such a funny season for us because we beat Manchester City, we beat Liverpool, we beat Manchester United, we beat Chelsea but in some of the other games we thought would be easier, we lost,” said Hahnemann.

“The teams you should be beating or you think you should be beating, you couldn’t get those results and then against the top teams we got some surprising points and wins. It’s just been such a crazy season. I know which way I would’ve rather had it because then we would have been safe a long time ago if we would have beaten the teams around us.”

Wolves' struggle to stay in the Premier League came down to the final minutes of the final game of the season on May 22. Three goals down at halftime to Blackburn, Wolves clawed two goals back and ended up avoiding relegation by edging out Birmingham and Blackpool by one point. Even after an extremely stressful season, Hahnemann knows it’s important to be able to adjust his mentality from club play as he joins up with the national team for a crucial tournament that will determine which team in the CONCACAF region secures a place in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.

“The games are a different tempo when you play with the national team,” continued Hahnemann. “You do try to change a little bit because club football is a marathon. Now with the national team, it’s a friendly against Spain and then three games in our group, then the knockout phase. So it’s all about getting together and getting the right team out there playing well together so we can get results quickly.”

Although the transition from club play into a major tournament with the national team leaves little time to spare, Hahnemann says there are some advantages to the quick turnaround.

“I think the one benefit is we have a lot of guys who have done this before. We’ve got a good core group of guys who’ve been around a long time. It makes it nice and it’s fresh as well, because coming in I’ve had 11 months with the guys at Wolves and now it’s the other team and it’s fresh again.”

“All of a sudden I have a new roommate. I’ll be rooming with Clint Dempsey. All the little things that drive my roommate crazy over here I’ve got four weeks to drive Clint crazy with. So it won’t be so bad.”

Joining Cherundolo and Hahnemann is Carlos Bocanegra, the national team captain who recently completed his first season with French Ligue 1 side St. Étienne. Bocanegra made 33 appearances for the French team and tallied two goals. Bocanegra had to get used to a completely new side after making the move from Rennes, also in the French Ligue 1.

“Whenever you are coming into a new club you have to prove yourself, and try to fit in as quickly as possible and get used to your surroundings and teammates,” said Bocanegra. “Here it was pretty easy for me, now that I’m speaking the language.”

“The players, coaching staff and everybody associated with the club were very welcoming. We also had a pretty good start to the season, so that makes life a lot easier and now heading into the summer with the Gold Cup that changes my mindset to the national team.”

Bocanegra says when players transition from club play to the national team it tends to be easier on the fitness side of the game. But the mental aspect can prove to be a challenge because players must refocus on their national team duties after a tiring club season.

“A lot about being a professional athlete is putting your head in the right place, so then your body will follow,” he said. “Our bodies are prepared for it. Mentally is the hardest part, but it’s also nice because it’s a change of pace. We’re around American guys and we all like each other. I think everybody looks forward to it and is quite excited to go into a U.S. camp and that makes it a lot easier for your head.”

Bocanegra and the rest of the U.S. team will begin meeting May 26 in training camp as preparation begins for the Gold Cup, which kicks off on June 7 against Canada. Even though the transition is quick and can be hectic at times, Hahnemann says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m going to have plenty of time off at some stage,” he said. “I don’t want to miss out on playing with the national team. I want to keep doing it and I still want to be involved and do everything physically possible because when you finally hang up those boots and the gloves for me, there’s nothing that’s going to be able to replace that.”