BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, March 14, 2012
With the opening of Norwegian season ready to begin in 10 days, American defender Sean Cunningham is hoping to break out this year while on his loan from Molde to Stabaek.
Cunningham, 19, signed with Molde last January and played last season with the club as it went on to win their first ever Norwegian championship. Cunningham, as one of the youngest players on the team, made the match day roster eight times in league play and played in cup matches but never made his league debut.
The Michigan native played most of this preseason with Molde and performed well but will now head to Stabaek for the remainder of the 2012 Norwegian Eliteserien season.
Cunningham is still very much part of Molde head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's plans for the future but with Molde expected to contend for another title as well as play in Champions League qualifiers, Solskjaer felt it was best for him to go on loan to Stabaek.
"I understand that there is pecking order, so to say," Cunningham told YA. "The competition is really high, as it should be for a team that has won the league. I came into preseason and I was doing quite well. I was in great form. I understand I wasn't in the starting plans but Ole has great faith in me and he's been really good to me. He worked really hard to find not just any club but the right club to get that experience."
Cunningham arrived at Stabaek earlier in January and is now in the second week of training with the club under first year head coach Petter Belsvik.
The club is one of the youngest teams in Norway and Cunningham has adjusted quickly.
"So far it's been great," Cunningham said. "I like it a lot. I think it's a really good group of guys. It's a pretty young group. Everyone is working for the same goal."
The exact goal for Stabaek this season is hard to say. They are coming off a very difficult off-season where the club has been plagued by serious financial problems that have yet to be resolved. Over the past few months the club has seen most of its top players leave and younger players arrive to take their place.
In addition to the new crop of players, the team's home venue has also been changed. The past three seasons they played at the fancy indoor stadium Telenor Arena but the financial problems have seen the club forced to move back into their previous stadium, Nadderud Stadion, where they played until 2008.
Despite all of the problems that are surrounding the club, Cunningham and his young teammates have ignored the pessimistic press reports on the team from the local media and they remain upbeat about Stabaek's chances this year.
"I think a lot of it surprising people this year after all that has happened with the club," Cunningham stated. "I think there are going to be a lot of teams that underestimate us, and that could be the best position to be in. I don't think anybody is nervous for the season, everyone is eager to show what they have. The players have been very positive about everything and so has the staff. There doesn't seem to be any negativity going around."
While most of the players on Stabaek this year will be very young and inexperienced, one player who will be relied on to provide veteran leadership is American Ricardo Clark who has played in tournaments like the World Cup and the Confederations Cup. Like Cunningham, Clark joined Stabaek for the 2012 season on loan from German club Eintracht Frankfurt.
Cunningham and Clark arrived at Stabaek roughly the same time and they have struck up a solid friendship.
"I remember watching Ricardo back when he was on Houston," Cunningham said. "It's actually nice to finally meet him. We've gone out to eat a few times. I've asked questions about playing for the senior national team and playing in a World Cup. He's a really humble guy and he's a great midfielder. They've been playing a little bit at center back to test him out and he's been doing well. That goes to show how experienced he really is."
Also part of this season for Cunningham will be a return to his natural position in central defense. In 2010 he was part of the SuperElite Tour which is an organization that takes several young highly regarded American-based prospects to train and play in Europe for a few weeks in the summer.
During that tour, the left-footed Cunningham switched from central defense to left back and that is where he played during his first year at Molde. When he reported to Molde for this past preseason he began to shift back to central defense and that is where he is likely to play the majority of time this season.
"I've played much more center back this preseason with Molde and Stabaek," Cunningham explained. "It's worked out nicely. I actually feel naturally a centerback. I didn't start playing left back until a month or two before I left for the SuperElite tour [in 2010]. I feel much more comfortable with the tactics of playing centerback but I had a whole year to learn the left back position so it's okay. It's just a preference for me but I like being in the middle. I'll probably end up playing both positions this year."
Also on Cunningham's mind is the international game with the US U-20 national team. Cunningham participated in the first camp of 2012 in January and was invited for the February camp but did not attend due to a request by Solskjaer.
So far Cunningham has enjoyed his time with the US team and in particular with new head coach Tab Ramos. Cunningham also appreciates the efforts to bring uniformity among all the US youth teams to fall in line with the vision of US senior team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
"I think Tab is a good manager," Cunningham concluded. "Part of what makes him a good coach is that he is a good people person. He really looks out for his players and he has a good eye for talent. He was a great player and I think it's nice that the whole national staff is working under same guidelines from what Jurgen [Klinsmann] wants. So I think the progression has been good with the U20s."
"It's a good group of players," he added. "Some play in Europe, and some play in the United States. I think one of the big challenges will be getting the group to mesh. But besides that, there is a lot of talent in the group. The U-20 World Cup is definitely in my thoughts. I'd love to be selected to it