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Cherundolo enjoying life in Germany

Lucrative transfers and players switching teams seem to be the norm in European soccer these days, so spending an entire career with one club is almost unheard of. Steve Cherundolo is bucking the trend.

Cherundolo, perhaps one of the unsung heroes on the U.S. national team, is into his 10th year at Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga after joining straight from university, another rarity.

He spurned a move three years ago to England's Premiership, the world's most watched soccer league, concluding that he had it good in northern Germany and is part of the community in Hanover, a city Cherundolo described as being big enough to get lost in but small enough to always see a few familiar faces.

"The club has made strides, and I'm still improving as a player," the 29-year-old said. "That's always been my key and my way to measure success. A lot of guys change clubs -- most players do -- and don't know what they're getting into. Here I know what I have, and up to now, it's been a good fit."

Playing regularly, of course, helps. Cherundolo, born in Illinois and raised in San Diego, became a fixture at right back in his second full season and hasn't lost his spot as the team, one of Germany's oldest, solidifies its place in the top division.

In this campaign alone, the no-nonsense and hard-tackling Cherundolo has missed only one league match. Any concerns about getting outmuscled -- he's a diminutive 5-foot-6 -- have long since passed.

"I heard commentators say he was a little small, but sometimes they used to talk about [England's 1966 World Cup-winning captain] Bobby Moore as being a little slow, and not many people got by him," said Bill Irwin, director of soccer at Cherundolo's alma mater, the University of Portland, and a former Cardiff City keeper. "Steve is a great reader of the game, and technically he's a good player."

"He has played a very big role in the Hannover team for many seasons," U.S. head coach Bob Bradley added in an e-mail. "It's very important to see those U.S. players who have chosen to play abroad playing well, especially in a league as strong as the Bundesliga."

Bolstered by the signing of German international striker Mike Hanke in the offseason, Hannover 96 sits eighth, four points adrift of a UEFA Cup berth. Fans had more reason to cheer following a 4-3 win over local rivals and title contenders Werder Bremen.

It hasn't all gone smoothly, though. Saturday's 2-1 win against relegation contenders Nurnberg marked the team's first victory since beating Bremen in early December, and Cherundolo heard more than a few insults when he scored an own goal in a 2-1 loss at Bochum two weeks ago.

"The ball just deflected off me, but yeah, I heard numerous things, almost daily, people saying 'Why did you do that?'" Cherundolo said. "A few years ago, at the beginning of my career, I had problems adjusting to comments like that, but now you just shrug them off."

There's been only positive feedback regarding the foundation he set up with a few friends about two years ago to help children with heart conditions. (See www.kinderherz-hannover.de for more details.) Through autograph sessions and auctions -- Cherundolo once spent an afternoon with a fan -- the foundation has raised about 250,000 euros for a hospital in Hanover.

As you might guess, then, Cherundolo, who speaks fluent German and has a German girlfriend, is no recluse.

"He doesn't take the stage for his nonfootball performances," said Volker Wiedersheim, who covers Hannover 96 for daily newspaper HAZ. "He's not living a secluded life. You might just find him sitting at a coffee shop enjoying a coffee, and everyone can go talk to him, no problem. He's not fencing himself off."

He's like that on the team, too. Since he's been there long enough and is renowned as one of the leaders, Cherundolo has no problems trying to inject American-style humor into his teammates to lighten the mood. Given that German soccer players have a reputation for sometimes being strict and serious, as he acknowledges, that isn't always easy.

Sarcasm gets lost in the translation, so Cherundolo resorts to the usual practical jokes: getting shoes wet before practice and inserting a little massage oil into the shampoo.

"You kind of know who you can do it with, and who you can't," he said. "I'm not changing me just because I've been here a long time. That I won't do. Of course, you have to make some changes to fit into your atmosphere, in the culture here, but they have to get used to me, too.

"In America, before a World Cup game or national team game, we're just joking around and going about our business like we do every day."

The latter sounds like the atmosphere you'd get at an English club. Cherundolo turned down a switch to Bolton in 2005 after weighing the pros and cons, and signed a new contract last summer, although he said he'd still like to spend a year or two in the Premier League.

Declining the offer meant he was able to enjoy the 2006 World Cup in the country where he plies his trade, which seemingly is the next best thing to playing a World Cup at home.

Cherundolo started all three games against the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana.

"Knowing the stadiums intimately, playing in them week in, week out, then having the World Cup in Germany, it was amazing," he said. "Just thinking back to the game against Italy, that's the most incredible atmosphere I've ever been a part of in any sporting event. I'll never forget it."

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.