[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE] The image of a Brazilian right back – Jorghino and Cafu in the past, Maicon of the current team – thundering up the flank is seductively romantic, but hardly unique to jogo bonito. These days, overlapping outside backs who can get to the corner and deliver crosses are deployed by most teams to varying degrees of success, but nearly as valuable are players who can lob and drive balls from wide positions in midfield while still attending to their defensive duties, which are considerable.
Outside backs are often isolated one-v-one against crafty, tricky midfielders, and they also must keep track of overlapping opponents and occasionally mark up a forward. While defending is still the first priority, every team at any competitive level values a capable crosser and accurate passer who can range up the flanks.
In last year’s Confederations Cup, two of Clint Dempsey’s goals came from balls lobbed from the right side of midfield by right back Jonathan Spector. The threat of an outside back launching such a serve can open up space for a run down the wing, as occurred in the 31st minute the USA final pre-World Cup friendly against Australia, when right back Steve Cherundolo darted past a challenge by Mark Bresciano and gained enough ground to hit a terrific cross that Edson Buddle headed home at the far post.
“For sure, they are very important,” says U.S. coach Bob Bradley of getting defenders into the attack. “You need the width, you need the ability to have those players join in, be a threat and not only to cross but to provide crosses from different places. That can lead to some great chances.
"We saw that in the Confederations Cup last year. I think Jonathan Spector [against Egypt and Brazil] had two great deliveries that set up goals for Clint Dempsey. Also the types of crosses that get us further up the field. I think that both Steve and Jonathan give us great options in that regard."
Cherundolo, one of only three U.S. players on the current World Cup team to have traveled to the past two competitions, has been locked in a duel for the past year with Spector for the right back starting spot. Cherundolo played in all three of the USA's final warm-up matches
The 31-year-old has been a regular with German team Hannover 96 since leaving the University of Portland after his sophomore year. His quickness, speed, and poise on the ball have been honed by 11 seasons in the pro game; he played all three matches at the 2006 World Cup, and was named to the 2002 team as an injury replacement for Chris Armas but was himself injured and didn’t play.
His size (5-foot-6, 145 pounds) can be a detriment when he is needed to guard the back post. Shortly after setting up the go-ahead goal against Australia, he dueled for a chip with Tim Cahill, and jostled him hard enough that the ball skimmed off the top of Cahill’s head outside the penalty area. Before Cherundolo could regain his balance, Scott Chipperfield ran onto the loose ball to hit a cross that Josh Kennedy somehow headed off-target from close range.
In this situation, Cherundolo did his job. Unable to win the ball outright, he nevertheless neutralized Cahill, a very good header. Nobody covered the space on the left wing, however, and that error allowed Chipperfield to hit a cross that should have produced a goal. Yet opposing teams are certainly aware of his size and will test him in the air as often as they can.
When Australia pushed the pace early in the second half, Cherundolo labored through a few rough minutes. Chipperfield deked his way past Cherundolo and from near the corner flag whipped a cross that Clarence Goodson nicked at the near post and Kennedy couldn’t reach at the far post. Two minutes later, a skied Goodson clearance dropped for Cherundolo, who was under no pressure but still aimed his header back toward keeper Marcus Hahnemann well wide of the target; the ball rolled out for a very cheaply conceded corner kick.
The threat of flank serves from midfield arose in the 63rd minute, when Cherundolo dropped deeper to protect the corner and Chipperfield instead pulled up to hit a diagonal ball that Jonathan Borstein – covering the middle from the left-back position – cleared with a spectacular flying volley. Outside backs are posed with dozens of such decisions in every game and Cherundolo, who earned his 60th cap against Australia, has been making them for more than a decade.
Cherundolo's skill and savvy on the ball turned the momentum around a minute later. In his own half near the touchline, he cut past Carl Valeri to win a free kick near the midfield line. After a turnover by Australia, he joined in an attack up the right side and dribbled past two opponents to play ball for Landon Donovan, who ran into a tackle and lost the opportunity.
While Spector, at 6-foot, 180 pounds, offers the size one likes in a defender, he ended the Premier League season with several rough games at left back for West Ham, and hasn’t played a minute in the warm-up games. He remains an option at several positions if Cherundolo runs into caution jeopardy, and/or the U.S. needs a bigger body late in a game for set plays.
“Steve is an important player for us,” says Bradley. “He is a true professional. Whenever we talk about leadership in our team, the kind of tough conversations that go on inside the team, Steve just has an excellent way of interjecting at the right time. He listens to what people have to say but he still has real strong opinions that come from his experiences.
“When you take into account his time in Hannover, the fact that he’s been the captain there, I think it speaks to the fact that he’s a real professional and an important part of what we’re doing.”