The U.S. Men's National Team's year is done, and many of the team's top players have either returned to their MLS clubs or are training with their European sides for the upcoming season. U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo has become a staple at right back with Hannover 96, who finished 11th last year. Cherundolo previews the Bundesliga season, recapping off-season transfers and making a few predictions of his own.
"As usual, the fan and media frenzy surrounding the beginning of the Bundesliga campaign is in high gear, and with it comes high expectations. Despite such a short off-season, people are already clamoring to see if the powers in Germany will be able to perform better in Europe than last year. Bayern Munich got knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals in 2003, and, not surprisingly, this year everyone expects them to get to the final. Stuttgart was the surprise qualifier for the UCL, but no one expects them to make a big impact.
"Germany hosting the 2006 World Cup has added another layer of excitement and speculation to the upcoming season. Even though it's three years away, already the experts are picking the players who will be on the team! The most obvious signs are the massive renovations going on in stadiums around the country. There are 10 stadiums that are either being renovated or rebuilt, so we're basically going to be playing in a construction zone all year. Construction takes place on one section at a time, so the stadiums can remain open throughout the season. It should make for some interesting environments.
"The always rigorous pre-season began June 23, more than a week earlier than last year. As far as activities, it's always the same. The first two weeks are mostly fitness, and you train three times a day. There's a lot of running and weight training, and a little bit of soccer. Once you go on the road to play friendlies, you're still training twice a day, regardless if you have a game or not. It's not the best preparation for a match, but it's supposed to help the mental aspect of your game (at least that's what they say.). If you can focus when you're tired (or so goes the theory), hopefully that carries over to the matches during the season.
"There weren't too many major signings in Germany in the offseason. Overall, I think the clubs have recovered a bit from the financial struggles that plagued the transfer market last year. Having said that, they may be using those difficult times as an excuse not to spend money on players. Clubs are a little hesitant because they aren't sure what's around the corner. Of course, the big clubs went about buying players as they normally do. Wolfsburg got a great new signing in Andres D'Allesandro from River Plate. He's a playmaking wizard, and extremely dangerous. I was surprised to hear he went to Wolfsburg, because they don't play the most attractive soccer - and it's a horrible city! Bayern Munich bought Martin Demichelis, a strong and powerful center back from River Plate who is the club's first Argentine player. The biggest question will be if Bayern can land Dutch international striker Roy Makaay from Deportivo la Coruna. He was the leading scorer in La Liga last year--that guy can flat out score goals. Borussia Dortmund improved their midfield by signing Flavio Conceicao from Real Madrid. Otherwise, not too many big names are coming into the Bundesliga. Often, the smaller clubs in Germany will get players from the bigger clubs who don't have a chance to play anymore or have been weeded out. They will come to a team where they can play, as opposed to sitting on the bench. Typically, those are the type of transfers we get.
"Once again, everyone is picking Bavarian powerhouse Bayern Munich to collect the Bundesliga trophy. They continue to field one of the strongest sides in Europe. Hamburg and Dortmund have been pegged by the pundits to put in a strong challenge for second place. In the middle of the pack, clubs like Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Hannover, Leverkusen and Kaiserslautern will be fighting for the places in European competition. At the bottom of the table, the smart money says that newly-promoted Frankfurt will be making a brief stop in the top flight. They didn't make any player moves, and were a bit fortunate to get promoted in the first place. So far they've struggled in the pre-season, but obviously it's tough to say at this point. Much like last year, the relegation fight could well go down to the final days of the season.
"One team who I think could struggle is Dortmund. Despite an impressive roster, Dortmund has had some trouble in the pre-season. Two of their key starters, World Cup veteran Torsten Frings (who U.S. fans will never forget) and Evanilson, went down with ACL injuries in the same game. Then, in the League Cup final, Sebastian Kehl inadvertently (?) pushed a referee and was smacked with a six-game suspension. Those personnel losses spurred the purchase of Conceicao, since at the moment they are bare in the midfield. Add to all that the transfer of veteran goalkeeper Jens Lehmann to Arsenal, and Dortmund is faced with some early season challenges.
"In terms of Hannover, expectations from the fans and media are very high. We finished in 11th place in our first season in the Bundesliga, and now everyone expects that we will challenge for a top eight spot in the league, which would mean playing in Europe next season. I think the players and coaches are a bit more realistic, and would be happy to continue to remain in the Bundesliga. We brought in a couple solid attacking players, none bigger than Thomas Christiansen from Bochum, who was tied with Bayern's Giovanni Elber as the leading goalscorer in the Bundesliga last year with 21 goals. Also, Jan Simak returns from a loan spell with Leverkusen. Exiting the club were a couple important veterans in the back. Our left back, Marc van Hintum, went back to Holland. Gheorghe Popescu retired, as did veteran goalkeeper Jorg Sievers. We lost a bit of experience, as well as some big personalities in the clubhouse which could affect us in the early going. We're going to need some of the new younger players to step up and take more responsibility.
"I think our main concern continues to be defending. We made several improvements in the attacking end of the field, but did not do well in replenishing our defensive corps. Because we play so offensively, we can always score goals. We play with a 4-3-3 formation, and two of our midfielders are attacking midfields, so essentially it turns into a 5-5. We gamble a lot on the attack, which exposes us defensively, as evidenced by the fact that we gave up the third most goals in the league last year. It doesn't make the players happy, but that's the way the coach wants us to play, which is to say very risky football. In order to challenge for a spot in Europe, we must improve our home record, which was simply dreadful. Home field advantage is enormous in the Bundesliga. The expectations on teams aren't as high away from home, and I think that trickles down into team performances. Also, some referees are prone to giving 'home town' calls.
"Last year, we did everything the hard way. Frequently we spotted teams a goal and had to come from behind. Also, the majority of our victories came on the road, which is why everyone is so optimistic. If we can perform better at home and manage to get the first goal in games, we have a shot at living up to the hopes of our very proud and passionate fan base.
"One amusing note: Kicker Magazine does a poll every year to see which coach people think will be the first to get sacked, and ours got picked. Hopefully he doesn't read the papers."
My predictions for the 2003-04 campaign:
Deutschemeisterschaft (Champions): Going with the experts: Bayern Munich – They have loads and loads of talent, from Kahn to Ballack to Santa Cruz and Elber. Nearly impenetrable at the Olimpiastadion in Munich, I think Bayern will not only take Bundesliga honors, but they will challenge for the Champions League title as well.
Relegation Zone: Frankfurt, Rostock, and Bochum.
Top scorer: If Bayern gets Roy Makaay, he'll be the leading marksman. If not, I'm going to give it to Romeo from Hamburg. An Argentinean who scored 10 goals last year, he's been looking sharp in preseason, and Hamburg typically scores a lot of goals. I think he's due.
Goalkeeper: Oliver Kahn, Bayern Munich – by far the best keeper. With the transfer of Lehmann, there just isn't anybody close.
Question Mark: I'll pick one team with potential for greatness and one for potential dismay. On the bright side, I think Wolfsburg may be better than people think. They've been finishing middle of the table for the last nine years, and it's about time they moved up. They added D'Allesandro in the midfield, and are playing in a great new facility, the Volkswagen Arena, that opened last year. On the downside, I don't think Dortmund is going to finish in the top four, which will be a huge disappointment for a traditionally powerful club."
The Bundesliga season begins Aug. 1 as Bayern Munich takes on Eintracht Frankfurt. A full slate of matches is set for Saturday, Aug. 2, including Cherundolo's Hannover 96 side, which opens at home vs. Hamburg SV.