It was an October night in Kansas City in 2012 and the drinks were flowing as the U.S. men's national team celebrated securing a place in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Taking part in the celebration in his own laid-back way was Steve Cherundolo, who soaked it all in quietly as he sipped his drink and sparked a conversation with a journalist who happened to be at the bar.
Cherundolo wasn’t interested in gloating about moving one step closer to what could be his fourth World Cup. Instead, he talked about his right back position and where the next generation of right back options were to help take over for him. He sounded equal parts concerned for the national team’s lack of depth and genuinely tired of carrying the torch that had been his for the better part of a decade.
Maybe Cherundolo knew the final grains of sand were slipping away in the hourglass of his career. Maybe he was honestly worried for the national team after he would be gone. Maybe he even had some idea that this night in Kansas City would mark his final match in a U.S. national team uniform.
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That evening’s win against Guatemala marked Cherundolo’s 87th and final national team appearance, and if he could feel the end coming, you could see why he might have been concerned. After setting the standard at the right back position for parts of four World Cup cycles, and starting in two World Cups, Cherundolo’s selfless concerns were more about the team he was leaving behind than about his own career’s mortality.
Perhaps it was always a little ambitious to think the 35-year old defender could make it to a fourth World Cup. It was probably driven by wishful thinking and memories of Cherundolo’s masterful 2010 tournament, when he was one of the best U.S. players present, if not the best.
Cherundolo was an American pioneer in Europe. He not only established himself as a regular star, but became a club legend at Hannover after decade of consistent, solid play. He earned the nickname “The Mayor of Hannover” and flew the U.S. flag in Europe longer than any field player before him.
He never quite drew the reverence with the national team that he did with Hannover 96, in part because of his quiet public demeanor and no-frills style. He wasn’t the flashiest player, or the most outspoken, characteristics you could see all the way back in 2002 at the World Cup in South Korea when Cherundolo was the 23rd player chosen for the squad, an injury replacement for Chris Armas. He could have played in the 2002 World Cup if not for a knee injury that sidelined him and left him a spectator taking in the proceedings.
In the decade after that first World Cup, Cherundolo became an indispensable part of the national team, giving three different head coaches the comfort of knowing the right back spot was locked down by a seasoned veteran with the quality and poise to face top competition and hold his own.
Cherundolo became such a fixture on the national team that he really wound up being taken for granted by U.S. national team fans who weren’t exposed much to his club success in Germany and might not have appreciated his quality until the 2010 World Cup, when he opened eyes by shutting down England’s James Milner and forced England manager Fabio Capello into a rare first-half substitution because Cherundolo was dominating the English winger so thoroughly.
That World Cup match against England will serve as Cherundolo’s masterpiece in a national team career that hasn’t gone unnoticed. He received a worthy nod on the U.S. Soccer All-Time Best XI recently, recognizing him as one of the best defenders, and arguably the best right back, in U.S. national team history.
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That is why it was easy to just keep on hoping that Cherundolo would shake off his knee issues, even as the months kept passing by and the 2014 World Cup kept creeping forward. Even Jurgen Klinsmann, ever the pragmatist, seemed willing to wait as long as it took to see if Cherundolo could make it back.
Those hopes and that wait ended on Wednesday, when Cherundolo made the decision to stop trying to force any more miles out of his well-worn knees. After multiple surgeries and time spent rehabilitating, Cherundolo finally accepted the reality that he might have already seen coming on that night in Kansas City in 2012.
The current state of the right back position is now very much in flux. Converted midfielder Brad Evans and Geoff Cameron stand as the leading options, neither being close to the natural right back Cherundolo was. Two other options, Eric Lichaj and Timmy Chandler, have also been sidelined by injuries, while Michael Parkhurst could be an option now that he is playing regularly in MLS. Evans, Cameron and Parkhurst are a serviceable trio, but they will be hard pressed to come close to providing the quality Cherundolo brought to the position.
Cherundolo won’t be easy to replace, and we probably won’t see a fullback of his caliber in a U.S. uniform for some time, but what he did do -- along with provide more than a decade of high quality service -- is establish a standard for all future American fullbacks to aspire to.
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