Steve Cherundolo Q&A: Former U.S. star on coaching, national team, more
The Mayor of Hannover shows no signs of leaving office.
Steve Cherundolo arrived at Hannover 96 in 1999 as an unheralded outside back, and aside from stints with the U.S. national team, he never left. Cherundolo retired from the game in 2014 after making more than 420 league and cup appearances for Die Roten but has stayed with the club in a variety of coaching roles. He is going into his third season as manager of the club's U-17 team, but he also is taking on a role outside of his coaching duties. Cherundolo is part of the Bundesliga Legends Network, a group of former pros intent on spreading the word about the Bundesliga.
Reached by telephone, Cherundolo spoke of his career, his managerial hopes and his thoughts on the current state of the U.S. men's national team, as well as one Christian Pulisic.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
ESPN FC: It's your third year coaching the U-17s. Do you enjoy coaching that age group?
SC: Yeah. It's difficult because it's right in the middle of puberty and they have other things going on in their heads. So it's a constant battle with them, but it's fun. It's an age where they can develop a helluva lot. It's probably my last year in this age group. It's still fun. It's an age where they start to realize there's more to the game than just going out and "trying my hardest." It's definitely interesting, but sometimes you do miss the tempo of the men's game.
ESPN FC: What's better, being a player or a coach?
SC: They're both kind of satisfying in different ways. A coach, you definitely have more going on; there's more organization, there's more time management, there's more obstacles to overcome, there's more decisions to be made. It's definitely more fulfilling, the coaching job, I would say on an all-around basis. And when something does go well, you accomplish something, it's more gratifying as a coach to see that, to see your ideas out on the field that work and don't work. But as a player, the lifestyle of a player is amazing. It's an incredible job and a privilege to have been a player.
ESPN FC: Did you always want to be a coach?
SC: It always interested me, yeah. It always fascinated me, and I always tried as a player to soak up any bit of information I had from all of my different coaches growing up in the youths and in the men's game. So it always interested me, the different approaches my coaches had in my career. You take a little bit from each one and kind of implement that into your own style and characteristics. You are who you are. You really can't change that. I think being authentic is important in a coaching job.
ESPN FC: Who in terms of coaches shaped you?
SC: Clive Charles, for sure. Sigi Schmid was another important coach in the youth ranks and someone I've kept in contact with over the years and just talked about soccer in general. On the national team side, you have Bruce Arena, who was the coach for eight years while I was active with the team. Then Bob Bradley, and at the end of my career Jurgen Klinsmann. Those were coaches who I learned something from all of them, and they all have different characteristics and different traits that are good. I think you can take the best of all three.
ESPN FC: When you were approaching retirement, was there an "Oh crap, what do I do now?" moment, or had you been planning this move into coaching for quite a while?
SC: I wouldn't describe it as an "Oh crap" moment because I was in no hurry to do anything else. I had a wonderful career, and I didn't have to jump into something right away. So I just decided to retire in March  because I was fed up with rehab and there was no progress. I just decided to call it. And then I started to work on a solution.
I needed to finish in my head what I had done on the field, I wanted to make sure that psychologically that was finished, close the door on my playing career. And then I spoke to my club about options, and then an opportunity popped up as an assistant coach in our reserve team, and that was perfect. I pretty much jumped straight into that. I think it was like a three-week break. And then my wife threw me out of the house. She couldn't stand it anymore. So it was three weeks of retirement, and then I decided to get back on the field.
ESPN FC: Had you already started getting your coaching licenses?
SC: No, I had not, and I kind of regret that. If I did have the opportunity to give some advice to older players, and they want to get into coaching or at least keep that option open, I would recommend to them to take the coaching licenses as a player because it will change the way you see the game as a player, as well. I kind of regret that, but I didn't plan on retiring then.
ESPN FC: In what way does it does it change the way you see the game?
SC: I think you get a better understanding of the whole picture. As a player, if you're a right-back or a goalkeeper or a forward, you're very in tune with what's happening on your parts of the field and what your job is with the ball and without the ball, and who is playing next to you. But you don't have too much concern with how all 11 players, and even the players on the bench, are moving and functioning and working together. What decisions have to be made off the field, and what decisions off the field affect the ones on the field and so forth.
So coaching is really complex, you have to keep everyone involved, and everybody has to be looked after and taken care of. As a player, you're just looking after yourself and taking orders. As a coach, it's kind of different. You have to gather information, make decisions and give orders. I think as a player, if you have that knowledge, you can first help the coach, and second become a better player.
ESPN FC: What was the hardest part about transitioning into coaching for you?
SC: Time management, because you are the one calling the shots and you are not just following orders. I think as a professional, and growing up in the youth ranks, you just do what the coach says and you're there at the time that the coach says. You do that for so many years, and it just becomes natural. You wait for a schedule and you make sure that you're on time. As a coach, you're making sure that everything works and everything functions properly, and you're taking into consideration all of the other people's schedules: your players, your staff, the parents if it's a youth game.
I think that's the biggest transition, just time management and organization and making sure you're prepared for training and games. Preparation is 90 percent of the battle, and once you have a grip on that, then you can dive into the meat and potatoes of coaching and really talk about tactics and what's the best way to develop a player and what's the best way to win a game. That's the fun stuff, but the stuff you have to get through is just the organization and time management.
ESPN FC: Oftentimes you hear about a stigma being attached to being an American player in Europe. To what extent does that still exist and have you encountered that a little bit as a coach?
SC: No, and I never really felt that as a player, either. To me, there's a general understanding -- and that's just the way the leagues work here -- and that is for the sporting director or the manager, it's his job to replace you as soon as you sign a contract. I think if you understand that as a player it's a business -- it's a cutthroat business and it's never personal -- and if you perform well, it doesn't matter where you're from. It doesn't matter what language you speak, it doesn't matter what country you're from, the doors will be wide open.
If you're not performing at the highest level, then of course I can see how some players interpret that as being, "Oh they don't like me because I'm American." And I haven't had that feeling yet as a coach, nor did I have that feeling as a player.
ESPN FC: Do you feel like part of that is due to the fact that you've been established in Germany for so long?
SC: Yeah. For sure, playing in the Bundesliga for a number of years and being in Germany has enabled me to at least get my foot in the door as a coach. You have to kind of prove that you know what you're doing once you're there, but it will definitely help you get your foot in the door, that's for sure.
ESPN FC: So how far away from being a full-fledged manager of a pro team are you, do you think?
SC: I will be hopefully be starting my pro license next year, in 2018. Once I have that, you basically have your driving license to drive a professional team. I need that first. It's a 10-month course, so all of 2018, and you're looking at 2019 is when I would look to take over a team, either in MLS or in Europe.
ESPN FC: So you're not picky about it having to be Hannover since you've been there forever?
SC: No, it just has to fit for myself, the club and my family. I would love to come home, and [I] respect the work that MLS and U.S. Soccer has done over the years. I would love to at some point be a part of that. But the timing has to work out. These are things you learn as a player. That's something the business decides. You can prepare yourself for certain things, but you're not alone making those decisions.
ESPN FC: How do you see the Bundesliga shaping up this year?
SC: There's obviously Bayern Munich on top, but I think there's at least two or three teams that can fight for the title. I think Dortmund definitely has a shot. I know they have a new coach. Depending on how quickly the coach can implement his style of soccer on the players, that's something that we'll just have to wait and see. But I think if you look at the teams and the quality they have out on the field, they're definitely strong enough to give Bayern a run for their money this year. I don't expect Leipzig to have a season like they did last year, but they have made some good signings, so we'll see.
ESPN FC: What are your thoughts on the U.S. national team at the moment?
SC: It's wonderful to see them successful again. I followed the Gold Cup, obviously, and it's great to see some of the guys that I used to play with on the field and winning the title, and a little bit of the spirit of the U.S. national team back out on the field. That's something that Bruce is very, very good at, putting 11 guys out on the field who compete at the highest level possible. That's something he managed everywhere he's been, and I think it's something he stands for, and U.S. Soccer is profiting from it once again.
ESPN FC: How does he do that? You hear what a player's coach he is, but what is it about his approach and his style that gets 11 guys to fight?
SC: It's a combination of things. One, it's his demeanor and the way he interpreted the game as a player and, obviously, as a coach. It's how he goes about creating an atmosphere during training camp. Off the field, everything is pretty relaxed -- still focused, but very relaxed. But once training time comes around, it's all business, and once he blows that whistle, he wants 100 percent effort from everybody. That's well understood and well communicated. That's all a player wants, as well. A player wants to come into camp, he wants to know what he's doing during the week, he wants to know what training is like, and Bruce gives him that. There aren't too many surprises.
The other thing he does really well, him and his staff, is their roster selection and eventually the starting XI selection. I think he does an unbelievable job of mixing and matching characteristics on the field. So you have a right winger who matches up with a right-back. The duo on the left side works out well together. And it's not only technically and tactically, but also mentally and psychologically. So I think that's something that he's always kept his eye on, and in my opinion, I haven't had a coach that has done that any better than he has. He's the best at mixing and matching players to find the right starting XI.
ESPN FC: Arena's reputation is that he isn't a tactician. You played for him for a long time, what do you say to that critique?
SC: I disagree with that. Obviously, you cannot survive in a professional league, in the professional ranks for so long and be as successful as Bruce and not coach tactics. Of course he does. But I think what you can do as a coach, and what he does very well, is mix and match the players who understand the game similarly. If you try to put two forwards on the field and one player with his club plays as a lone striker up top and the other player plays on the weekend with two strikers, it's not going to work well. Bruce will not do that. He'll put two forwards together that play the same style of soccer at club, so they mix and match well. I think you can get through a lot of tactical issues on the national team by putting 11 players on the field that understand each other well. I think that's kind of the trick to it. You just don't always have the time on the field as a men's national team coach to go through the tactics.
ESPN FC: What did you make of Klinsmann's time as coach of the national team?
SC: It was a lot of fun, and it was challenging in some ways because he expects more things out of players than most coaches would. He wants a player to not just go out on the field and give 100 percent, he wants them to be thinking about soccer and challenging the players off the field, as well. The game of soccer is so broad, and there are so many ways to explore soccer and try to improve in different areas. And that's something he really tried to implement, and I applauded him.
It's true, as a soccer player, a professional athlete, you have a lot of downtime. And you have a lot of time wasted, shopping, you do this and that. I think Jurgen tried to make the most of that off time by making players smarter and helping them to know the game better. I think the idea that what Jurgen had was good, it was fantastic. I don't know if that's the right way to make players short-term better, but I'm sure long term it would.
ESPN FC: Do you think it was the right move to have him be replaced and have Bruce come in?
SC: It's so hard for me to comment on that from the outside. I watched the games, I followed the results, but I have no idea what's going on in camps.
ESPN FC: But you mentioned earlier it seemed like the team had lost a bit of fight, and that they've gotten that back.
SC: I wouldn't say fight, but I would say maybe a little bit of identity that they've had over the years. For so many years, the national team was embodied by players who gave their all, who never stopped fighting, and they were reoccurring faces that you saw on the national team. I think Jurgen made an honest attempt to try to have more players involved in the program, so there was a little more depth in the program, which is smart long term. But I think sometimes what happened is that the first 11 was changed too much to where the team lost its identity over time. You may have won some depth, but I think your top 11 lost some identity, and at some point that's tough to overcome.
ESPN FC: Fans watch guys go over to Europe and some guys stick and some don't. Looking back over your career, why was it that you were able to establish yourself and stay in Germany for so long?
SC: A point that I recognized early was that I was only as good as my last game, and at any stage, the club was trying to replace me. And they did. They tried to replace me every year. But I enjoyed that challenge, convincing every coach that I had that I was the best choice for that position at that time. I also felt that staying at Hannover was important to me because I was improving as a player. I felt that the club was making strides forward, building that program and financially, as well. And [what] I always ask myself when I signed a contract was: personally how happy am I? All of those questions always got answered with "yes."
ESPN FC: How critical is learning the language to make sure that you're maximizing your effectiveness on the field?
SC: Very important, because there is a life outside of your apartment, the stadium and the hotels; a very large one. And I think the quicker and sooner and the more you can engulf yourself in the culture, the better off you are because there are difficult times on the field and in the team where you don't have any room to escape. I think it's really important to find a group of friends or places you can go to take your mind off of what's going on in the locker room or out on the field, or maybe a tiff you had with the coach or a teammate. That was something that was very important to me; an opportunity to vent outside of my Bundesliga bubble. You can only do that if you speak the language.
ESPN FC: I've got to ask you about Christian Pulisic. What are your thoughts on him and his progress, and how far do you think he can go?
SC: The sky is the limit, and it's a perfect example of what can happen to a player ... let me go back a bit. The U.S. does an unbelievable job of developing players technically and physically. What I think happens at some points is that we lose the ball on the tactical side of the game. When the boys turn 16, the level of play in the U.S. from the age of 16 to 18 isn't good enough compared to Europe. I think Pulisic came over [to Europe] when he was 16, and there are a few other examples now. If you can get a European passport, I would recommend that to the young American players, because the level of play from 16 to 18 here in the junior Bundesliga is excellent. Until we can achieve that in the U.S., I don't think we can maximize our talents in the U.S. They need to move to Europe.
I think that's what's really given Pulisic the opportunity to maximize his talents and his potential. He pushed the limits. He pushed the envelope. I think he would've been bored [had he stayed in the U.S.] He would've stood out in the U.S., he would have been a professional, I think. But I think pushing him to his limits from 16 to 18 enabled him to step into the men's team at 18 and really make a splash, which is what he's done.
ESPN FC: You mentioned the 16-to-18 age group -- is that just because not as many kids in the U.S. are in professional environments at that age?
SC: Yeah, I think it's the most important age group. I've trained this age group for the past three years now, and that's where you really see kids drop off the pace or keep up the pace of the game. I see 16-year-olds, OK -- they realize it's professional soccer or that this high level isn't for them, so they're going to go to a smaller club. That is the age where you make or break it.
It's very interesting, and I think it's very important that they have high-quality games week in, week out, and good training four times a week at that age. Prior to that, you can do a lot of wonderful things on the technical side and the physical side to get players ready, but from 16 to 18, that's where you need to learn the tactics of the game and implement them on the weekend against high-quality opponents. That's the problem in the U.S. right now.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.