Molded by influential coaches, Steve Cherundolo sets out to become one
Listening to retired U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo talk about coaches, it’s clear he was cut out for his new profession. The World Cup veteran remains particularly enthralled with those who knew him before he became a pro.
“I’m so grateful for having the coaching I had in my youth years, starting up at Nomads in San Diego and then going to college with Clive Charles and then with the youth national teams,” Cherundolo told SI.com over the phone from Hannover, Germany, fresh off the training ground from his new job as the club’s under-23 assistant coach. “It’s something that I’ve been blessed with in my career.”
Charles, an Englishman, made the leap to the North American Soccer League with the Portland Timbers. He finished his career playing indoor and coached in the Portland area until his death in 2003. He coached both the men’s and women’s programs at University of Portland, as well as the U.S. U-20 women and U-23 men. Cherundolo, Kasey Keller, Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan played for Portland in the 1990s.
“Clive, for me, was a really big personality in that moment of my life: somebody of authority,” Cherundolo said. “He built a program and an atmosphere that you could only get better in. So much learning going on, so much fun and so much of a family feeling in the soccer program at U.P.”
Cherundolo, 35, has called Hannover 96 home since 1999, when the club was in the 2. Bundesliga and signed him during his sophomore year. He played through its promotion to the Bundesliga three seasons later, the team’s success paralleling his own career trajectory.
Knee injuries plagued him throughout his playing days, though, eventually leading to an early retirement. At a press conference March 19, he made it official after sitting the previous three months since his latest flare-up. Since then, Cherundolo embarked on the arduous process of completing his professional coaching license.
“It’s something that opened my eyes to a completely different way of looking at the game,” he said. “The first two or three years are mapped out, and that’s basically just concentrating on learning a new trade, which is coaching, and starting from the bottom up. … When I have that accomplished, you have to make a decision whether or not to go the pro route, or you stay in the club in the youth development program.”
At this point, he said he’s not sure what level he wants to coach. While he works on his licenses, he assists Sören Osterland in coaching Hannover II in the German fourth tier. The team serves as the club's reserve squad and oldest group in the academy, primarily comprising U-23 players.
As a player, Cherundolo's involvement in the U.S. youth programs led him to his career in Germany. He played for the U-18 and U-20 national teams, and he only missed the 2000 Summer Olympics with the U-23s because of a knee injury.
“I was very sure I didn’t want to be in school for four years,” Cherundolo said. “I wanted to be a professional soccer player as soon as possible, and Clive brought up to me that he would send me away as soon as he felt I was ready.”
Cherundolo made 21 appearances for the U-20s leading up to the 1999 U-20 World Cup in Nigeria, where current Seattle Sounders and then-UCLA coach Sigi Schmid guided the Americans. Schmid said his effervescence made him stand out as a leader.
“As training approaches, guys start to get a little quiet and focused. With Steve, it was the opposite,” Schmid, who called Cherundolo "one of my favorite players to coach," told SI.com. “He’d be quiet on the bus, and then as you got closer to training, all of a sudden, he’d start bubbling up.”
Besides being vocal, the diminutive defender had an innate ability to read the game. During a camp in Germany, Hannover manager Reinhold Fanz watched a U.S. training session and keyed on the 5-foot-6 Cherundolo.
“He had such enthusiasm for the game,” Schmid said. “Steve was a player who I felt then had a national team future. For a while, it was trying to figure out what was his best position. Was he a central midfielder? We played three in the back, so he played as a libero in those days, as a central defender but with a free role. Then as the game shifted now, what would he become? He became sort of a right back, and I think for a lot of his early years when he played right back, he may have gotten overlooked a little bit. He’s competitive, and he’s totally immersed in the game, and that’s what eventually carried through.”
Schmid said Fanz compared Cherundolo to Fabian Ernst, a Hannover youth player who made 492 top-flight appearances in Germany and Turkey and won 24 caps for Germany before retiring in 2013. U.S. assistant Wolfgang Sühnholz became a conduit for Hannover to keep tabs on Cherundolo, as he was friends with Fanz.
Cherundolo made his Hannover debut in February 1999, and he captained the U.S. in the U-20 World Cup two months later. The Americans lost in the round of 16 to champion Spain, which included Iker Casillas and Xavi on its roster.
Cherundolo returned to his new club after the tournament, and he didn't leave again in 15 years.
“[Hannover] wasn’t a city on my to-do list in the beginning, but it was a chance for me to play and present myself and to start a career here,” Cherundolo said. “I tried to pay that back with good performances and loyalty.”
Club president Martin Kind lauded Cherundolo as “practically an emblem of Hannover” during his retirement press conference. Cherundolo, given the nickname “Mayor of Hannover” after earning the captain’s armband in 2010, was one of the first players Kind signed for the club.
“We had just been promoted to 2. Bundesliga, and here came this lad from the USA, not knowing the country, the language and the people,” Kind said upon Cherundolo's retirement. “He had to find his feet here, and I've got to say, I like the Americans and the way they rise to challenges, and that's what Steven did here.”
Cherundolo received an offer to leave Hannover in 2005 for Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League, but he declined. He couldn’t let go of the club he joined in its first season in the second tier, and unlike many players on newly promoted teams, he found opportunities as it climbed the standings and qualified for the UEFA Europa League twice.
“It’s something that, at some point after a few years go past and you’re a part of it, you feel proud of it,” said Cherundolo, Hannover’s all-time leader in Bundesliga appearances.
He remains with the club that has given him continued opportunities as he completes his latest transition. He began the UEFA “B” License course right away, waiting a year per confederation rules before completing the “A” License, and then another year before taking the UEFA “Pro” course.
With his reverence for influential coaches and willingness to start from the bottom, it’s not hard to envision Cherundolo at the helm of a Major League Soccer franchise in the near future. Like recent American pros Caleb Porter and Gregg Berhalter, it’s also easy to see him making that team successful.
But for now, Cherundolo will bide his time and learn how to be a coach.
“[Deciding where he will coach] is something that I think is just impossible for me to say right now. … I’ll make that decision when that comes,” Cherundolo said. “Coaching at some level in the United States, whether it’s in youth soccer or at a higher level — professional or in the national team programs — interests me very much. It’s something that I’d love to do.”