Steve Cherundolo is one of the best players American soccer has ever produced.
However, ‘The May or Hannover’, as he was affectionately known due to his long career with the Bundesliga club, was among the most underappreciated members of the U.S. men’s national team.
His importance only became more apparent in the years that followed his retirement from international football in 2012, because the U.S. struggled to replace the right-back.
For years, the USMNT simply made do, shifting players to fill the gaps amid a revolving door of new faces coming in and out of the team.
But that is changing. What was once a position of weakness is now arguably American soccer’s biggest strength. For the first time in recent memory, there’s not just one top-level fullback in the U.S. player pool; there are several.
There’s Sergino Dest at Barcelona, a Swiss Army knife that can feature on either side. There’s Reggie Cannon at Boavista, a player bound for higher levels of the game sooner or later. There’s Antonee Robinson, starting at Fulham, and Bryan Reynolds, the soon-to-be Juventus signing who will have his say at one point or another
And they’re not the only ones. Suddenly, the U.S. has legitimate depth at outside back.
“Sometimes, it’s a generational thing, but a lot of times, it’s just timing,” Cherundolo said when asked about how his old position suddenly became one of strength.
“I wouldn’t use the word luck. I just think it’s maybe a combination of, when a position opens on a national team, a lot of players gun for that position, and some players adapt to that position.
“It’s a number of things coming together at once. And it’s great that things don’t happen like clockwork.”
This coming together follows years of difficulties out wide. At the 2014 World Cup, the last one the U.S. participated in, converted wingers Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley were the primary fullbacks. Those two very much remained in the picture in the following years, while Graham Zusi, Tim Ream and Matt Besler were converted to play out wide at one point or another.
Players like Jorgen Villafana, Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj were also involved, but none truly shined like the current crop. The one player who really stood out was DeAndre Yedlin, who earned a Premier League move after going toe-to-toe with Eden Hazard at the 2014 World Cup.
But none have locked down the position as steadily as Cherundolo, who currently works as a youth coach for the German federation and is charged with helping educate the next generation of stars. Most of German soccer’s top players call the Bundesliga home, at least at the start of their career, and that gives clubs in big countries an advantage.
“One of the challenges the U.S, national team has is that we have players in Europe, we have players all around the world,” Cherundolo said. “And one of the advantages, maybe, the DFB has or the [English] FA has is that you have all of your top talents already playing in your country.
“It’s very easy to keep tabs on clubs, moving forward to say, ‘Hey listen, we need an outside back, maybe we can push this player’, and that’s something that the U.S. national team has always battled. It’s always been difficult. So, I think these generational gaps are only natural because one half of our team plays on the other side of the globe and one half plays in the States.”
Knowing that, the USMNT’s current core of right-backs is, for lack of a better word, astounding. Dest, Cannon and Reynolds aren’t anywhere near the primes of their careers and are already playing at or headed to the highest level.
And, as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Julian Araujo, who started on the right in a December win over El Salvador, has been linked to Tottenham and Juventus in recent weeks as teams overseas are beginning to eye America’s top defenders more and more.
Yedlin, at just 27, is the elder statesman of this group. Just a month or two ago, it appeared Yedlin was pretty far out of the picture at Newcastle but, in recent weeks, he has battled back, pushing his way back into Steve Bruce’s starting XI in the Premier League.
With his contract set to expire this summer, Yedlin’s future remains uncertain, but his performances over this last month have served as evidence that he still may have a part to play, even if it is just as a game-changing super-sub due to his still-electric pace.
Left-back, meanwhile, isn’t quite as strong. Robinson is the front-runner, having been a bright spot for Fulham this season, while Dest may shift out to that side given the depth on the right. Sam Vines, who started against El Salvador, is a young option as well, at just 21.
While there are certainly more names on the right than the left, there are still plenty of options to choose from when it comes to arranging this puzzle, and virtually all of them are Olympic-eligible, which is very good news for U.S. U-23 boss Jason Kreis.
“I’m a little unsure of how it could have all happened at the same time, as far as fullback is concerned… I look at it a little bit more globally and say that that the amount of young super, super high potential players that have been produced in our soccer system right now is fantastic,” Kreis said.
He added: “I think that we’ve done a lot of complaining over the past, however long it is, about lack of development and lack of good coaches in our country, et cetera, so I think, when we can, we need to take a moment and say all of the people out there that have been involved in our youth development program have done an amazing job, in my opinion, to get all of these players to the level they’re at right now.”
With several of these top fullbacks playing at top clubs, Cherundolo says they already do have one advantage on players like him.
During his time at Hannover, Cherundolo’s teams were never among those competing at the top of the Bundesliga. Instead, they were more often the team fighting to survive. And, with that, comes a more defensive style of play.
With the USMNT, though, fullbacks will need to be attacking more often than not. Aside from a few big games a year, the U.S. will almost always be on the front foot, especially in World Cup qualifying.
Having that extra player in the attack that can make something happen could be the difference between escaping Central America with extra points or being left out of the World Cup fun altogether like in 2018.
“My job as an outside back was mostly defensive,” Cherundolo explained, “and going into the national team, aside from playing in World Cups, playing against Mexico and friendlies in Europe, it’s mostly offensive.
“It’s really a very different position. I think it’s unique for outside backs in the United States for the U.S. national team because you’re going to need those more offensive players. I know Gregg [Berhalter, USMNT head coach] and how he wants to play.
“You look at Sergino Dest, who grew up in Holland, his soccer career in Holland playing for Ajax, it’s certainly a very offensive way to interpret that position. It fits in perfectly with the U.S. national team.”
Fullback isn’t the USMNT’s only strength. You only have to turn on the Champions League to see players like Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams starring at the highest level the game has to offer.
But the rise of the American fullback has been particularly sweet given the struggles of years past. For years, the U.S. has been crying out for a Cherundolo replacement, and they’ll have a few to spread around during a loaded 2021 with World Cup qualifiers, the Gold Cup, Nations League and the Olympics all on the schedule.
“Looking back on my own career, I didn’t think I was a complete player until I was 31,” Cherundolo said, “where I was physically still able to run with the best, but mentally and tactically I had kind of seen everything and I was mentally ready for everything. My best soccer was played when I was 31, so sometimes these things take time.”
Robinson is 23. Cannon is 22. Dest is 20. Reynolds? Just 19. Time is very much on the USMNT’s side.
After waiting nearly a decade to find an heir apparent, it appears there are now several ready to set a new standard in the decade to come.
Original source here
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