“The Mayor of Hannover” aka Steve Cherundolo might be one of the most underrated players in US National Team history. Since earning his first cap in 1999 he has been ever-present on the right side of the American backline. He possesses not only good physical qualities but also the technical ability to play out of tight spaces and relieve pressure. How many times over the past decade has he connected with Landon Donovan in a slick combination releasing Donovan on one of his slalom-like runs? His absence was felt as he went down early in the 2011 Gold Cup against Mexico and the US defense subsequently lost all composure.
Cherundolo will be 35 when the 2014 World Cup kicks off and it is quite possible, given the physical attributes required of modern right backs, that he will not be among the starting 11 if the US qualifies. This looming issue is one that the American soccer punditry has known about for some time and for a short while it seemed there was a solution in German-American Timothy Chandler. The ship hasn’t sailed on the Nurnburg player, but his national team future seems very much in doubt at the moment.
After Cherundolo and Chandler, the USMNT right back hierarchy becomes quite murky. There are talented players, but it remains to be seen if a player will emerge who can perform at the level of either Cherundolo or Chandler.
In January it was AJ DeLaGarza who got the nod against Venezuela and then Panama. More recently, Fabian Johnson started in the historic Azteca triumph against Mexico and Michael Parkhurst got a trot out in the first qualifying match against Jamaica.
AJ DeLaGarza is a fine MLS player, but it is highly doubtful he will find himself on the US World Cup roster. Fabian Johnson is an exciting young talent and would be a good choice but unless something drastic happens among left-sided defenders in the US player pool he projects at left back or left mid. Michael Parkhurst performed well in the Jamaica defeat, but it is debatable if he possesses legitimate international quality.
Among the Occam ’s razor crowd in the USMNT fan base (“what club does he play at?”) the logical heir to Cherundolo would be Aston Villa’s Eric Lichaj. He was Bob Bradley’s choice. But, despite getting EPL minutes, Lichaj does not appear to be among Jurgen Klinsmann’s favorites. He also is not of German or Mexican extraction. For most national teams that would be a non sequiter. If Lichaj, still only 23, continues to find his way onto the field for the Villans then it will become increasingly difficult for Klinsmann to pass him over. You would expect a cap for Lichaj in the near future.
The USMNT faces a similar conundrum at both center back positions, with Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu showing signs of age. However, the emergence of recent Stoke City acquisition and former Houston Dynamo man Geoff Cameron has done a lot to quell those concerns. Cameron, a midfielder throughout college, was a four year player and third round draft pick who did not play in his first MLS game until he was nearly 23 years old. His above average skill on the ball combined with his athleticism sticks out among American central defenders.
Perhaps the solution to the coming right back conundrum is another player who fits Cameron’s profile. An unheralded high school player who was never part of ODP, Steven Beitashour was a five year player at San Diego State. He struggled to adapt to the college game, red-shirted his freshman year, and apparently was really bored hanging out at home during the summer. He eventually found his groove with the Aztecs as a midfielder, even playing alongside Joe Corona for a year. His college coach, Lev Kirshner, is clearly a fan/fanboy of Beitashour. He stated in a recent San Francisco Chronicle article that if “you put two cones down and let them play, I’d pick him over Landon Donovan.”
He was picked in the second round by his hometown San Jose Earthquakes and Frank Yallop quickly found that he was most effective as a defender. In short order, Beitashour has become entrenched along the MLS table topper’s back line.
An above-average athlete, Beitashour has excelled at providing service for the ‘Quake duo of Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski. While you would like to see him whip his crosses in instead of floating them, what is perhaps most attractive about Beitashour is that, even at the age of 25, he is still improving.
Klinsmann has taken notice, calling him into the team that faced Mexico. Even though he did not feature in that game, the Iranian-American will likely get his next chance during the January 2013 camp. Of course, American fans have seen talented left and right backs emerge before only to see their star wane (Marvell Wynne anyone?). But, in the search for Steve Cherundolo’s replacement, clearly all bets are off.