Cherundolo targets July Gold Cup for his return
Steve Cherundolo hates being sidelined.
"Any game I miss really disappoints me," said the right back.
He should look on the bright side. At least a hip injury that necessitated surgery in late April didn't happen next spring. Lo and behold, that probably would have meant missing the World Cup for a second time.
Cherundolo, a mainstay with the U.S. national team and fan favorite at Hannover 96 of the competitive Bundesliga, went under the knife almost five months after a mishap in training. He won't return for the end of the Bundesliga campaign, while the glitzy Confederations Cup and a pair of World Cup qualifiers pass the newly turned 30-year-old by, too.
"Being involved in the national team is a lot of fun," Cherundolo said. "It's a wonderful treat. The national team has a great atmosphere, and it's always a big advantage of ours. Everybody loves to play and we enjoy our time together, so that's the thing that's probably disappointing the most."
Cherundolo sustained the injury in an accidental collision with midfielder Bastian Schulz in November. They both went for the ball, and Schulz, unable to stop his momentum, kneed Cherundolo in the upper right thigh. Swelling ensued.
Still, due to injuries to the rest of the back four, and since the team was mired in a slump that produced three victories in its first 15 league games, Cherundolo started against Karlsruhe on Nov. 29. Ironically, Schulz substituted for him at halftime.
Cherundolo didn't play against current leader Wolfsburg the following week, though he started Dec. 13 against Arminia Bielefeld in the final tussle prior to Germany's lengthy mid-inter sojourn.
The break did little to help, though, and Cherundolo sat out games against Schalke and Energie Cottbus on Jan. 31 and Feb. 8, respectively. He saw action as a late sub versus Borussia Moenchengladbach (U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley's team) on Feb. 21, played all 90 minutes against Leverkusen on Feb. 28, and made an 18th -- and final -- appearance of the season versus behemoth Bayern Munich on March 7.
"I felt pain the whole time, even after the winter break, during preseason in January," said Cherundolo, who has been with the club since 1999. "Our doctors and medical staff here assured me that nothing serious could happen or that it couldn't get any worse, which it didn't. But it didn't get any better, either, so after the game against Bayern I decided I had enough and can't continue training every day in pain and on game day taking painkillers to numb it."
Cherundolo underwent an operation on April 21 in Hannover; the initial bruise had turned into a calcification. (Jonathan Spector, West Ham's U.S. defender who underwent hip surgery last year for a different type of injury, wished Cherundolo well prior to the procedure.) Since it was not embedded in the muscle, it was an "easy surgery" and Cherundolo has been able to walk freely. If an MRI scheduled for next week gives the all clear, rehab begins in early June.
He only wishes he'd taken a few weeks off when he first got hurt; surgery, Cherundolo guesses, wouldn't have been needed.
The U.S. visits Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying June 3 and hosts Honduras in Chicago three days later. The draw for South Africa's Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup, ensures glamorous encounters against Italy -- remember Kaiserslautern two years ago? -- and Brazil later in June. Egypt rounds out the "Group of Death," with relative minnows South Africa, New Zealand and Iraq joining European champion Spain in the other group. Cherundolo is targeting the Gold Cup, which begins in the U.S. on July 3.
Then it's trying to regain his spot at Hannover. Portuguese defender Sergio Pinto has deputized for Cherundolo, whose contract expires in the summer of 2010.
"I'm going to approach preseason to try and win my spot back," he said. "Nothing is guaranteed. So I have some work to do. I want to get healthy again and prepare my body for a long season and hopefully a long summer after next season."
The race for the Bundesliga
In the first half of the Bundesliga season, established giants were upstaged by the free-flowing soccer of rank outsider Hoffenheim. When the team's leading scorer, St. Louis resident Vedad Ibisevic, got hurt in winter training, it sparked a slide down the standings.
But wait, another minnow, Wolfsburg, is on the verge of snatching the league from the likes of Bayern Munich, Stuttgart and Hertha Berlin.
Wolfsburg, which has never won Germany's top prize, clings to the lead on goal difference ahead of Bayern. Hertha Berlin is one point back, and Stuttgart two back with two rounds remaining.
Hannover 96's U.S. international right back, Steve Cherundolo, expects things to go down to the wire.
"I think it's going to be Wolfsburg or Bayern," said Cherundolo. "It could be decided by goal difference this year.''
Cherundolo, who grew up in San Diego, threw his support behind deposed Bayern boss Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann, who spends plenty of time in California, got the axe April 27 -- in his first season.
"I'm not a fan of changing coaches every year," Cherundolo said. "He was there nine or 10 months. I think he had a three-year plan, and he wasn't able to fulfill that. But on the other hand, Bayern is a club that if they're not in first place or winning the championship, then they're not happy."
Wolfsburg visits Hannover, which has lost only once in the Bundesliga at home this season, while Bayern travels to Hoffenheim, suddenly riding a two-match winning streak, this weekend. Stuttgart hosts relegation-threatened Energie Cottbus, and Hertha Berlin entertains midtable Schalke.
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.