One-club men in soccer are becoming so hard to find these days, they can be almost fully understood through a tortured but apt metaphor: as rare as hen’s teeth. An American to earn that title in the often cloistered confines of Europe is no small wonder.
But one-club man only partly explains the impressive career trajectory of the former United States men’s national team stalwart Steve Cherundolo. In his adopted hometown in Germany, where he played the entirety of his professional club career, the former fullback is so revered that locals have practically cemented him into the city’s brickwork, dubbing him the unofficial mayor of Hannover.
He spent 15 seasons in a Hannover 96 shirt, the vast majority of it in Germany’s top tier. He captained the Lower Saxony side as they rose to a fourth-place finish and Europa League qualification in 2011. When he retired from playing in 2014, he did so as the club’s all-time record Bundesliga appearance holder.
Now, the 37-year-old, still with Hannover, is starting to create minor ripples in the coaching ranks. It remains early days, but there is informed talk that he could be headed for the very top in Germany — someone in the minds of club senior figures as potentially a future head coach of his adopted hometown club.
Cherundolo is currently the club’s U-17 team head coach, a level which can be a notoriously fickle beast. This season, though, his charges are riding high in the league table, challenging for top spot.
Since retiring in 2014, Cherundolo has performed a number of backroom staff roles. An assistant at the youth and reserve levels, then an assistant at first team level, the Illinois native was given his own brief in the middle of 2015, when he took control of the U-17s.
The paucity of U.S. coaches in Europe remains. Bob Bradley smashed the glass ceiling between Americans and head coaching gigs in the top leagues when he took over Swansea City of the English Premier League. It was a predictably short-lived dalliance. Such is the vision in England’s top tier. Cherundolo might not be the next American given the chance in one the continent’s top five leagues, but he might be one who has staying power.
Cherundolo’s in no hurry, but in measured tones during an interview with FourFourTwo, he left little doubt about his ambitions.
“Obviously having been at one club all of your career, I’d be silly to say that I wouldn’t have any ambitions to coach the first team here,” he says. “Of course that’s a goal and that would be an option at some point if I’m asked upon. So, yes, I’d like to coach in the German Bundesliga. As well, of course, in MLS: who knows where some day, maybe some role in US soccer.”
Cherundolo might fly under the radar to a degree, an American whose name periodically bubbles to the surface as one to keep a close watch on. He nevertheless emerges as a name tipped to burst through.
On cursory glance, mere competence guiding precocious youth does not necessarily translate to prime managerial candidate. Cherundolo’s zig-zagging apprenticeship between youth pipeline and first team as head coaches came and went hints that the blazers have him tabbed for bigger things.
Someone who knows him personally and professionally thinks so, too.
“He is capable of doing anything — he’s looked upon as a great player, he’s a legend in Hannover—and I think that his future is very bright here in Germany,” says Joe Enochs, head coach of German third-tier outfit VfL Osnabruck. “Going through the ranks like he is doing right now, coaching youth and moving up, he’s putting in the time. And I think this experience in the youth ranks is going to help him out.”
At the regionalized youth level, Cherundolo’s Hannover side plays in the same league as the Osnabruck U-17s. It’s hard to judge accomplishments at such a level, admits Enochs. Each year the coach receives a group of new players. Some years, the talent pool is stronger than others Last year, Cherundolo’s side struggled, notes Enochs. This year, it is prospering.
But Enochs still sees the German youth ranks as a fertile landscape.
“There’s a lot of Bundesliga coaches right now that did go through the youth ranks, if you look at Hoffenheim, if you look at Dortmund, if you look at Stuttgart in the second league, if you at Hannover in the second league.”
Hannover was relegated to the German second tier after a poor finish in the Bundesliga last season. The club’s first-team head coach is currently Daniel Stendel, a former player and youth coach for the clubt. Right now, Cherundolo is on the cusp of attaining the prestigious UEFA Pro license, the coaching badge required to manage at the top level in Europe. He keeps ticking the appropriate boxes.
Evidence of Cherundolo’s perceived worth has cropped up elsewhere. Somewhat bizarrely, Irish bookmaker Paddy Power had him reasonably high on its list of possible permanent replacements for departing U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, giving him 12-to-1 odds to get the post eventually filled by Arena. That was absurd, of course, but nevertheless, somewhat instructive. Bookies know. Cherundolo’s name also cropped up as an outsider choice in the guessing games of who would replace Arena at LA Galaxy before Curt Onalfo was appointed.
So when and where next, as far as Cherundolo is concerned?
Cherundolo says there has been interest from within Germany and from the U.S. But the hint to the question of where he might end up is contained in his own answer, as well as the on-the-ground sense of Enochs.
“I think they are grooming him to become some part of the professional team at some point,” Enochs says. “No one can say when but I really do think that’s the story with Steve.”
The locals do not refer to him as the mayor of Hannover for nothing. He was a respected club captain. He knows the landscape intimately.
He alludes to that princely fact of his playing career, that of the one-club man. The fact that feat was achieved by an American largely at Bundesliga level speaks volumes. Suffice to say, Cherundolo is better placed than many to be the next American coach in Europe.
So Bob Bradley getting the job at Swansea City was step No. 1, albeit that feat was undercut by an early exit. For Cherundolo, more important to making the American coach de rigueur is results.
“I think there have been some guys who’ve been influential in the job. Bob getting the job in England: I think even Bob being so brave and being a coach in Egypt and Scandinavia is really, really breaking down doors for the rest of us. He’s done a lot of hard work as well as the others who have tried as well. It’s only a matter of time. It’s a long process, but I think—now—guys getting the job is the first step. And the second step is having success in those positions.”
Cherundolo speaks passionately about the nuts and bolts of the game, of breaking the game down, of handling different personalities. What emerges is the picture of an astute operator, which might help explain why he played at the level he did for so long as captain.
“I would like to get my schooling done here in Germany first, my badge out of the way, and then get another year of experience,” he says. “Then I’ll feel prepared to take over a team in a higher division. Something I want to avoid is getting into a situation that I’m not prepared to handle. And that’s what I’m concentrating on now, getting my skills in the right spot, to where I’ll be able to handle any situation that comes my way.”
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