By Ridge Mahoney
So long has Steve Cherundolo been ensconced as the No. 1 USA right back that one has to recall the days of Frankie Hejduk (who also played the left side) and Tony Sanneh to recall significant predecessors, and that goes back a decade.
Nicknamed “The Mayor” by his U.S. teammates for his longevity and popularity at Hannover, the former San Diego Nomads youth player has been first choice at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and hasn’t lost that status under Jurgen Klinsmann. There's not a lot of experience behind him and the enigma that is Tim Chandler might be solved next month, or it might not. Toss in a Gold Cup that is expected to feature an MLS-heavy lineup and there's lots to ponder at this position.
Soccer America’s Top 6 Right Backs
1. Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), 87 caps.
2. Tim Chandler (Nuremberg), 9.
3. Sean Franklin (L.A. Galaxy), 1.
4. Steven Beitashour (San Jose Earthquakes), 0.
5. Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City), 34.
6. Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), 0.
In 2014 Cherundolo turns 35, an age that seemed a lot older in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup, when he and Carlos Bocanegra and a few other stalwarts seemed unlikely to hang around long enough for the next one. To the contrary: Cherundolo has not only contributed a steady stream of solid, and occasionally excellent defensive displays, his knowledge of when push up the flank aggressively to hit crosses or play combinations or resort to a cagier role is uncanny.
“For Cherundolo, he doesn’t play his age,” says former U.S. 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.”
He’s been a popular player in Hannover since helping them earn promotion more than a decade ago. Still, the Bundesliga is a tough league, and though Cherundolo is about to set a club record for top-flight appearances (he has 295), if he were to lose his starting spot his place in the U.S. lineup might slip.
Chandler returned to the national team, after conveniently missing the competitive matches that would permanently bind him to the USA, for the friendly against Russia in November. He said he’s “1000 percent committed” to the USA and if so, he can solidify the situation at right back and could be a candidate to start on the left. Despite his proclamation, until he deigns to fly across the Atlantic and plays in a competitive match, who knows?
Since he took over a year and a half ago, Klinsmann has looked at a few MLS outside backs – A.J. DeLaGarza, Heath Pearce, Zach Loyd – and none have seemed to impress him, though DeLaGarza – who played mostly center back for the Galaxy this season -- has been summoned to the January camp.
Franklin is one of the league’s fastest players, though somewhat challenged offensively, and Beitashour’s strong tackling and incisive crossing have been vital elements in the Quakes two playoff appearances in the past three seasons. Where the MLS players stack up at right back will be clearer after the Gold Cup, unless one of the Euro-based players is released.
It may seem strange to rank Spector over Eric Lichaj, who’s in the Premier League with Aston Villa, but the Villa defense is getting clobbered week after week and he’s been in and out of the lineup. (It has conceded 41 goals, more than any other EPL team.) Spector is playing down a division for a team dangerously close to the relegation zone, so his club situation isn't all that great, either.
Lichaj has never played for Klinsmann and Spector played all of 14 minutes last year (against Italy), so discussion of these two is mostly academic at this point. Yet in the pre-Klinsmann era Spector deputized for Cherundolo at the 2009 Confederations Cup and Lichaj started in that slot at the 2011 Gold Cup.
Beltran has played more than 100 games for RSL since it drafted him out of UCLA in 2008 yet not until last season did many observers take note of his guile, touch, and usually reliable defense. He’s also been called into the January camp and should be in the mix when the Gold Cup comes around.
Michael Parkhurst (FC Augsburg) played both corner slots for the USA last year; he’ll be included with the left backs in this series and gained some valuable experience in the Champions League before leaving Nordsjaelland last month. If injury or age impairs Cherundolo and Chandler flakes out again, he’ll move way up in this category.