A Very Fine Line
A retooled defense is spearheading the U.S.'s strong run in World Cup qualifying
Welcome to the world of big-time soccer, where a scoreless draw can provide reason to celebrate. When the U.S. team left Kingston, Jamaica, last Saturday with a 0-0 tie, the Americans weren't bemoaning their lack of goals. Instead they were taking pride in their suffocating defense, which has vaulted them to the top of their regional qualifying group for the 2002 World Cup, with a 3-0-1 record. The U.S. was to play last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday in Foxboro, Mass. A victory would almost guarantee the team one of the region's three qualifying spots.
The U.S. has emphasized defense for a dozen years. At first this strategy seemed hopeless and even un-American—a concession that the U.S. couldn't win at the highest level and was merely trying to avoid embarrassment. (In a 1-0 loss to Brazil in the second round of the '94 World Cup, for instance, the Yanks hardly advanced the ball past midfield.) Now the plan looks brilliant The U.S. has built a back line strong enough to frustrate the opposition, dictate the tempo and allow one of the team's snipers to win the match. Despite having scored only five goals in its four games, the U.S. has dominated its six-team group; in fact, the Americans picked up a point in Jamaica even though two of their top scorers, Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff, were injured and unavailable.
"We're not blessed with great attacking players," says coach Bruce Arena, who was hired after the U.S. was outscored 5-1 in three losses in the 1998 World Cup. "We have to be solid in the back."
The team's most glaring need when Arena arrived was at right back. After toying with the notion of playing only three defenders, Arena believes his back four has been made whole by the ascension of Steve Cherundolo, 22, who played in only his fifth national team match last Saturday. "The first time I put Steve in at right back," Arena says, "it was as if he'd been playing the position for 15 years."
The 5'6" Cherundolo may be undersized, but he has overcome greater obstacles. While training in Germany with the under-20 team in the summer of '99, he drew the attention of Hannover 96 and signed with the second-division club that winter. Five days before he left for Germany his father, Richard, died of cancer. "My family told me to go because they understood it was the kind of chance not everybody gets," says Cherundolo, who was raised in San Diego. "The first six months were hard. Every day I wanted to come home. But things happen for a reason, and it's your job to figure out what that reason is."
Cherundolo showed his versatility at Hannover, playing both flanks in defense and midfield. He was arguably the best player on the U.S. under-23 team that qualified for the 2000 Olympics, but he missed the trip to Sydney when he tore his left ACL during an April 2000 practice. As a result of his hard work during rehab, Cherundolo is faster now than he was before the injury.
Cherundolo is learning by studying the strengths of his fellow defenders. Carlos Llamosa is the team's most accomplished man marker, and Jeff Agoos, who joins Llamosa in central defense, is the unit's leader. Left back David R�gis is the best at going forward into the attack. Pushing them for playing time is Eddie Pope, a World Cup '98 starter who is near full strength after knee and foot injuries over the last two years.
Like a good NFL cornerback, Cherundolo can track the ball without letting his man sneak behind him to receive a pass. Arena believes Cherundolo will continue to improve his positioning while defending against crossing passes into the box, where he is vulnerable to taller attackers. "In five years he could be our most complete back," says assistant coach Dave Sarachan.
Cherundolo takes nothing for granted—not even his starting position for the final six qualifying matches. "I'm not quite there yet," he says. "I like to put pressure on myself."