Steve Cherundolo's stint as a guest assistant with the U.S. men's national team was a case of near-perfect timing.
On Oct. 9, Cherundolo received an email from U.S. caretaker manager Dave Sarachan asking him to help out with the U.S. during the November international window. Little did Sarachan know that two days earlier, VfB Stuttgart manager Tayfun Korkut was axed and Cherundolo was cut loose, as well.
"I guess you guys didn't do a good job of reporting that," Cherundolo joked during a roundtable with reporters the day before the Americans' 3-0 loss to England. "Thank you, it's a good thing [Sarachan] wasn't aware of that. I said, 'Lucky for you I just got fired, so I have plenty of time.'"
As for what went down in Stuttgart, Cherundolo said, "I can tell you that there were more problems than just results. On the inside, there were issues with the GM and the coaching staff, and that plays a role, as well. At the end of the day, you're all professionals and you try to get the job done, but everything feeds off of each other, and eventually there has to be a decision made. Unfortunately for coaches, you're always the weaker link."
Cherundolo is perhaps the most underrated player in U.S. history. He made 87 appearances with the U.S. and was named to three World Cup rosters. So of course he jumped at the chance to not only help out Sarachan, but also get an up-close look at the next generation of American players.
"It's like coming home," he said. "You're just seeing new faces in your living room now. Not all, some familiar... but it's always an easy entry into a group, and with the U.S. national team it's always a pleasure. It would be very difficult for me to say no to the U.S national team because some of my favorite memories of my career as a player have been with this team."
Cherundolo's playing career with the U.S coincided with a period of tremendous growth for the sport and an increase in respect for the U.S. program. That ascent has leveled off.
"I think the U.S. national team has taken a hit as far as respect level goes because of failing to qualify for the World Cup," he said. "This kind of break in passing of the torch, there's been a big generation gap and now we're trying to rebuild the pool, which is the right step. But it's a process."
Cherundolo's perspective is always worth listening to, given his playing and coaching experience. Not only did he spend the entirety of his professional career with German side Hannover (setting a team record for Bundesliga appearances), but he has worked as a youth coach and assistant coach, as well. His job prior to the Stuttgart gig was managing Hannover's under-19 team.
So what's his main takeaway regarding the current U.S. team?
"I would say the amount of young quality players that we have," he said. "I think a lot of players aren't finished yet, of course. But how can they be? And they're still getting used to this level of play and to each other.
"Over the past year, the current coaching staff has done a good job of introducing a lot of new players to the program and really teeing this up for the next cycle. That's work that in my eyes needs to be complimented. It's hard work. But I think you have this large pool of young guys, it's trying to figure out who works the best together and who can further U.S. Soccer the best among the new players. It's always a mix between the veterans and young guys and stuff."
One player who oozes talent is U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic, although Cherundolo eschews use of the word "talent" in favor of "perspective" because he has seen too many players rely on raw ability and not put in the work. He lauded Pulisic for his work ethic, as well as his ability, and is among those expecting big things -- although he notes there are no absolutes.
"Right now, [Pulisic] is in a club where they play a style of soccer that suits him, and he's done really well at Dortmund," Cherundolo said. "Now, for him, it's just a matter of keep growing, staying hungry and taking on more of a leadership role with this team. And it doesn't have to be a leadership role by opening your mouth in the locker room, the meal rooms and all that, but on the field with performances and bringing what he can bring to the game, his one-v-one, setting up goals, scoring goals, being dangerous, a go-to guy on the offensive end for U.S. Soccer. For him, now it's just plugging away, working, playing, getting better and not being complacent."
Pulisic is by no means the only American playing in the Bundesliga. Weston McKennie is at Schalke, and Tyler Adams is widely reported to be heading to RB Leipzig. As for why American players are being recruited by German clubs, Cherundolo said Americans are noted for having a good mentality, a good attitude, being intelligent and adaptable.
"Obviously, there is the language barrier, but it's not a barrier at all because everyone speaks English there, and if you want to, you can learn German, which is not that difficult," he said. "The biggest difference you see [in American players] is on the tactical side of the game. How they respond to certain changes that happen during the game; formations, plays, how they react to that.
"What I feel is that within Germany, players from ages 16 to 18 have week in and week out, top-quality games that they're playing, these junior Bundesliga matches, where kids are playing against other kids the same age, maybe a year older, but also the same level or maybe better. It's a matter of getting at that age, from 16 to 18, more top-quality games where I'm pushed to my level, where I have to learn or I'm going to fall off. I feel like the U.S. players don't get enough of those games at that age."
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Cherundolo added that the cutthroat nature of the game in Europe is also something that many American players don't anticipate when they head over.
"[My youth coaches] told me, 'You're going to get six games to get the benefit of the doubt. If you don't perform in those six games, then you're out.' That stuck with me," he said. "And I always approached the game that way, and I still do as a coach. Unfortunately, I don't see enough of that in young players. Part of it is a lot of the money they [make]. You're protected by your contracts, and they are larger."
Columbus Crew manager Gregg Berhalter is widely viewed as the front-runner for the vacant U.S. managerial post. Cherundolo was an international teammate of Berhalter's and also shared ideas with him when the two moved into the coaching ranks. He indicated he hasn't yet spoken to another old international teammate, current U.S. men's national team GM Earnie Stewart about the program, but "that time will come." As for Berhalter, Cherundolo has been impressed by what he has seen.
"I think Gregg knows what he wants," he said. "You can see that from the teams he coaches. He gets that out of his players, and that's a good sign for a coach. But is that the right fit for him and U.S. Soccer? Time will tell."
As for what is next for Cherundolo, he noted that he's "open to everything. My phone is on." He said he had no regrets for taking the Stuttgart assistant coach position after spending almost 20 years with Hannover. He has in fact been speaking to both clubs about a new role -- he is after all still getting paid by Die Roten -- and he wouldn't rule out someday returning to the U.S. to share what he has learned. Last year, former international teammate and current Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra sent some of the club's youth coaches to Stuttgart to pick Cherundolo's brain, so there is some recognition of his work.
But Cherundolo said his next order of business will be to obtain his UEFA Pro coaching license, a 10-month task that will start in the first quarter of next year. After that, his options should be wide open.
His immediate priority is to impart some wisdom to the current U.S. team, which showed its inexperience in losing to England. Cherundolo insists such games can still have value, especially in terms of getting used to the higher speed of the international game.
"[It's] not just on the physical side of things but on the soccer side of things," he said about the speed of play. "Make decisions quickly, thinking quickly, closing down spaces, making those decisions. When do I go? When do I stay? All that happens faster. The other component, as well, at international level is mistakes are punished quicker. I think those are lessons that younger players who haven't been at this level playing will learn. And I hope that's what they take from these next two games, because that is the most important thing."