DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, June 9, 2010
On the eve of opening their 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign, starting defender Steve Cherundolo feels that a US team lacking in international star-power will still pose a challenge for the world's best.
As the team enters their final days of training before the pressure-packed group stage, the veteran defender finds a basic, yet important commonality among his teammates which he expects them to carry into the coming weeks.
"This team hates to lose," he states. "We're a tough team to beat, which might be our best quality."
"I think the rest of the world doesn't think our qualifying group is any good," he chuckles at the public commentary on their Group C opponents. "We're going to give it our all, and I think we're just ready to go."
As the US prepares for the trio of group C opponents, the Hannover 96 vice-captain sees the need for both a more tactical, analytical approach to game planning as well as the demand for the coach and team leaders to light a fire under the players' backsides to shift things in their favor once the struggle is underway.
"I think preparing for the game ahead of time, you spend more time talking about the tactics and what the other team is going to bring to the game, and how you can stop that or take advantage of that," he explains, subsequently drawing a contrast "at halftime I think it's more or less about attitude."
This dichotomy was evident to the team's starting right back in their second tune-up game, a 2-1 win over Turkey which saw them come out of the locker room firing to overturn a halftime deficit and eventually go on to the confidence-building victory.
"Especially in the Turkey game, [the team] came out and played very well," he speaks of the post-halftime turnaround. "In the second half, we flipped that and did very well.
"We had an attitude that said - 'we're going to get a goal back and win this game'. In the middle of the game, that counts more than any tactical direction or assignment from the coach."
Like many of his American teammates, the longtime Hannover favorite holds some important familiarity with the experience of playing in the southernmost country of the African continent.
In contrast to the 15 current squad members who took part in last summer's Confederations Cup run, an injury keeping him off the plane one year prior leaves his participation in the November, 2007 Nelson Mandela Challenge Cup as his lone appearance on the soil of this summer's hosts.
"It was a great first trip to South Africa in the Nelson Mandela Cup, but also as a team," he explains of the importance of the team's first-ever win on African soil.
"It was nice to get down here a few years ago know that the World Cup was coming. If anything it's a a small advantage to have seen what was coming."
While the experience of scoring the lone goal in the 1-0 win over the Bafana Bafana was not lost on him, the San Diego native knows that not only will the World Cup itself offer a night-and-day difference, but the team on the field surrounding him has progressed in all aspects as well.
"I don't want to compare the two," he suggests of any relation to the upcoming tournament. "It's a completely different atmosphere now, not only is the media present in large numbers but also the fans will be there too."
"It was good to get a little bit of atmosphere but it's very difficult in those situations," he continues, concluding "I don't think that both South Africa or the United States a few years ago were in the same form as they are now, mentally or physically."
One major boost for the Red, White and Blue in all of their upcoming games stems from the impressive ticket sales to American fans, who rank top among all 31 nations flooding into the country .
Cherundolo points this out as a factor which has aided the team in one of their most remarkable results of recent years, and one he hopes will give them an extra push as they try to open group play strongly against the Three Lions of England to once again surprise the world.
"We certainly had a lot of fans in Germany [for] the game in Kaiserslautern against Italy," he remarks in reference to the crowd support for the team's 1-1 draw in the 2006 World Cup against the eventual champions.
"That was an unbelievable atmosphere [with] tons of American fans," he continues, admitting "It did help that there's an American air base nearby."
While the team regularly faces the unusual situation of experiencing more of an away atmosphere inside of their own borders due to a diverse diaspora of the international community within the US, Cherundolo sees the fantastic support of his home country fans as a positive sign that things are headed in the right direction, and one he hopes the team will harness in the coming weeks.
"Any fan that we can get is good news for us. I think it's a sign that soccer is growing in the U.S. That's certainly very important to us and we want to continue on the same route we're on."