By Ridge Mahoney
The exclusion of Carlos Bocanegra from the U.S. roster for Hexagonal qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico has dominated the headlines, yet the absence of another World Cup veteran with European experience could be just as impactful.
A good look at the national team in a tough environment without right back Steve Cherundolo was provided last month in San Pedro Sula, and it was ugly. Tim Chandler’s much-anticipated competitive debut couldn’t have been much worse. A general lack of cohesion along the back line plagued the U.S. throughout the match against Honduras as the steady, heady contributions of Cherundolo and his flank impetus and defensive stability were sorely missed.
When he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Feb. 6, the day of the Honduras-USA qualifier, it was hoped Cherundolo would be to be back in training in a 2-3 weeks, which would have given him a few more weeks to get fit enough for a callup to possibly play in the second and third Hexagonal games.
Instead, he still hasn’t played for Hannover 96 in its 11 domestic and Europa League matches since the winter break, though he returned to training Tuesday. He’ll thus have about 10 days of training -- assuming he doesn’t suffer another setback -- prior to the resumption of Bundesliga play March 30 at FC Augsburg, for which fellow U.S. defender Michael Parkhurst has played only two games since a January move from FC Nordsjaelland.
There’s not a lot of spectacular in Cherundolo’s game, though he can occasionally whip in a great cross from midfield or driven low ball from the byline that defenders struggle to repel. He’s just a solid tackler and reliable passer who may not draw gasps from viewers but is prominent by his absence, if that makes any sense.
That thorny question of age clouds the future of Cherundolo, just as it does Bocanegra. Cherundolo is actually older -- he turned 34 last month -- but the signs of slippage haven’t been as evident. Getting fit and playing well during the next 15 months will be essential for him to keep his spot at Brazil 2014, assuming the USA qualifies.
“For Cherundolo, he doesn’t play his age,” says former national team defender Marcelo Balboa. “It’s fun to see that kid play that position. He’s smart, he’s intelligent, he’s efficient with his running. You can’t tell his age. I’m 45, so he’s a kid.”
Chandler is sidelined by a hamstring injury for the Costa Rica and Mexico games, so there’s rampant scuttlebutt that Coach Jurgen Klinsmann will go to Plan C, as in Geoff Cameron, to replicate his role as right back for Stoke City. The decision to exclude Parkhurst, who can play both outside back positions, complicates Klinsmann’s selection dilemma. Real Salt Lake's Tony Beltran debuted for the USA against Canada Jan. 29 and is the only other right back on the roster.
With four days of preparation, the coach could have brought in Parkhurst -- and Bocanegra, for that matter -- to evaluate their fitness and sharpness first-hand. They could always be left out of the lineup if they didn’t measure up. There are complications with European clubs if players are taken away for international duty without playing, and certainly Klinsmann doesn’t want a repeat of what transpired last season when Jozy Altidore got stuck on the bench by the AZ Alkmaar coaching staff. (That Altidore has still managed to score 25 goals this season for the Dutch club is remarkable.)
So Klinsmann is sticking to his decree that players not appearing regularly for their clubs won’t be summoned. He left defender Clarence Goodson off the roster for Honduras game because his club, Brondby, was out of season. The Danish league has since resumed play, and Goodson is in camp this week, one of only six defenders picked by Klinsmann.
(About the only exception Klinsmann made to the aforementioned decree in qualifying was for Maurice Edu, who played only one game for Stoke City in four months after his move from Rangers and wasn't even dressing regularly. Edu has since moved on loan to Bursaspor in Turkey, where he is starting, and is available for the Costa Rica and Mexico games as a midfielder or defender.)
Sooner or later, Klinsmann needs to start grooming the successor to Cherundolo, and despite his rocky performance in San Pedro Sula, Chandler is among the options. But as Klinsmann learned by discarding Bocanegra for the Honduras game and throwing Omar Gonzalez to the wolves, the short-term price can be costly no matter how admirable are the long-term objectives.