AMSTERDAM – If anyone ever needs a poster boy for the "steady as she goes" attitude to races, please look no further than the unofficial mayor of Hannover, US defender Steve Cherundolo.
While some stateside observers began politely presuming the right back would fade from view during the 2014 World Cup cycle, the 33-year-old still holds down right back for the national team more than halfway down the path to Brazil.
Cherundolo is also captain at Hannover 96, the club he joined out of the University of Portland more than 13 years ago. It took a few seasons for the club to break back into the Bundesliga and several scrapes with the drop zone followed, but their measured climb now has the American skippering a Reds side enjoying the pressure of raised expectations.
"It's great to be able to play these types of games toward the end of my career," Cherundolo told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Tuesday from Germany. "It's much more fun to play in the upper half of the table, and certainly to play in Europa Leagues. It's a great change of pace compared to a relegation battle every year."
Following Hannover's best-ever top-flight finish (fourth in 2011) and deepest UEFA run (the quarterfinals of last year's Europa League), things have definitely changed at the AWD-Arena. Though they’ve only turned over their new leaf for a couple of seasons, Cherundolo says the team has already shed any possible upstart persona to raise their own expectations, in Germany and in Europe.
"We're a team that takes pride in every game, we don't like to lose," he said. "Our first goal is to make it out of the group. After that, you take it from round to round."
Things had also started swimmingly in Bundesliga play until a 3-1 defeat at Hoffenheim this past weekend. Thanks to an opening-day rally share with Schalke and consecutive derby wins over Wolfsburg and Werder Bremen, Die Roten can still reclaim third place with a two-goal win over Timothy Chandler's visiting FC Nürnberg on Wednesday.
"Up until the last game, it was going very smoothly," Cherundolo said. "All in all, I'd say we've started the season well."
In some ways, his enhanced club status is similar to how things have changed since his first US cap came 13 years ago this month. Like Hannover, the national team is continually striving for new heights and the subject of far greater attention than back in 1999.
Thanks to all that, the pressure is on, from both outside and inside the clubhouse. Cherundolo states their standing World Cup cycle mission like a man who's seen the climb and fully subscribes to raised expectations.
"I do believe it should remain our goal, no matter what the draw is, to try make it out of the group [at the World Cup]," he declared.
For now, they are still experiencing the sometimes choppy seas of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. While passage to the final round hexagonal isn't yet smooth sailing, the USMNT is happy to hold its own destiny heading into the final two third-round games.
"The feeling in the team was good when we left," Cherundolo said. "We had a good night against Jamaica, and on any other night we would have scored a few more goals. On that night, a good goalkeeper and a few posts got in the way."
As for precisely what he'll be doing when the summer of 2014 rolls around, the veteran says his guess is no better than anyone's. Besides, Cherundolo is still trying to help steady the side to the next step along the way.
"I take it game-to-game," he said. "And every game I can play, I enjoy."
Cherundolo does, however, have one clear vision down the road for what the conclusion of the Brazil 2014 cycle will bring. Though his Hannover contract runs out at season's end, the Illinois native foresees an additional year passing before he finally comes to play at home in America.
"This business is funny and works in mysterious ways," Cherundolo said with a laugh. "You never know what will happen, but it definitely is a goal of mine to play in MLS. I think the right time to go home would be in 2014, after the World Cup."