SEATTLE—Leave it to the most experienced international veteran on the U.S. Gold Cup roster to give this tournament perspective.
U.S right back Steve Cherundolo has been hurt since November. He had hip surgery in April. The 30-year-old defender was home last month while the Americans shocked top-ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup in South Africa, then led Brazil by two goals before losing 3-2 in Sunday's final.
So for Cherundolo, getting back his starting job by playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup is as big as playing Spain or Brazil last week would have been. Right?
"Our goal is obviously to win the tournament. Anyone who doesn't have that goal shouldn't be here," said Cherundolo, who has 51 appearances with U.S.
He joins veteran scorer Brian Ching as the two regular national team starters returning from injury to join the Americans' quest for a third consecutive regional championship for North and Central American and the Caribbean. The 12th-ranked U.S. opens Saturday night against Grenada, a tiny island nation ranked 88th in the world.
"It's a different tournament," Cherundolo said. "I don't think it's comparable at all. There's a lot more travel involved between games within the country. The teams are different, the level of competition is, as well.
"But our goal is to win."
The Americans have never lost in Gold Cup group play, going 21-0-1. The tie was on July 12, 2005, with Costa Rica in Foxborough, Mass. That's where the U.S. will play its final match of the opening round, on July 11 against Haiti. That will follow Wednesday's game in Washington, D.C., against Honduras.
Haiti and Honduras play the first game of Saturday's doubleheader at Qwest Field, home of Major League Soccer's expansion Seattle Sounders.
Coach Bob Bradley has given most of the national team's regulars the next few weeks off before the start of the European preseason or allowed them to return to their MLS teams. Only four of the 23 players on the original Gold Cup roster were at the Confederations Cup before CONCACAF allowed the travel-weary Americans to add seven more players Thursday. Charlie Davies was the only one of the four who played in South Africa.
"We know that at times there are many different factors that get considered when putting a roster together," Bradley said. "But once we are together, our focus is to go about our business and the way we play. This is an important tournament, the championship of our confederation. We are excited about defending our title."
Cherundolo, who grew up in San Diego, is just excited to be back. And relieved. He played through pain for months after colliding with a Hannover teammate during training last fall. He eventually missed the second half of the Bundesliga season plus five World Cup qualifiers and Confederations Cup following surgery April 20 to remove a calcification in his hip. He had to wait that long because the joint was too swollen to operate on it.
He said he needs to improve his in-game fitness, and Bradley said he isn't sure when Cherundolo will be able to play a full game again.
Jonathan Spector has become the recent starter at right back. Cherundolo views the Gold Cup as a path back to his starting jobs, with the World Cup less than a year away and a little more than a month to Hannover's Bundesliga opener at Hertha Berlin on Aug. 8.
"Everybody here has to take advantage of every game he has, every minute he has," he said. "Yes, of course I see it as an opportunity - as well as a chance to get back in the mix regularly.
"In professional soccer, in professional sports, things go quick. One day you can be the starter, the next day someone else can take your spot."
Bradley has a plan for Cherundolo, who with Jimmy Conrad and Santino Quaranta are the three members of this U.S. team who played on the 2005 Gold Cup champion.
"It's great to have him back. That's first," the coach said. "We'll need to be smart on how we will use him, but the idea certainly is to get him some games so that when he gets back to Hannover that he's moving the ball well, and that gets him back into play for (World Cup) qualifying coming up."