CUNNINGHAM ON THE RISE AT MOLDE
With the US U-20 team currently in France as part of their first camp of the new 2013 cycle, Molde left back Sean Cunningham is looking to make a strong impression to become a top player for the team.
Cunningham, 18, turned professional in January when he signed a first team professional contract at Molde. Prior to that, he saw some time with the US U-18 team but this will mark his debut with the U-20s.
"It's great," Cunningham told YA. "I've been in and out of national programs for awhile now. So I think it's a good opportunity to try to make myself a regular on the team."
In France, Cunningham will be playing under former US national team star Tab Ramos who is coaching the team this week after US Soccer did not renew the contract with former coach Thomas Rongen.
Ramos' tenure is uncertain with the U-20's but Cunningham has been in touch with him and knows that a difficult challenge awaits the team as they play a pair of friendlies against a very talented French team.
"We've gotten a few e-mails here and there letting us know that we really need to try to come together fast," Cunningham said of his talks with Ramos. "There are a lot of unfamiliar and new faces but the goal is to match the intensity and ability France has and one up them."
Joining Cunningham in France will be his Molde teammate and fellow Michigan native Josh Gatt. While Gatt won't be with the team too much longer since he is too old for the 2013 U20 World Cup, Cunningham is happy to have a player that he has played with for many years dating back to his club soccer days at the Derby County Wolves.
"I've had some national team experience but none with the U-20s so it's good to have Josh there to help me through some things," Cunningham admitted. "He's been with me since I became a professional. It'll definitely help having him there."
Cunningham arrives in France after making his professional first team debut in a couple of friendly matches. In addition to consistently training and occasionally playing with the first team, he has also been a regular with Molde II.
Cunningham feels that he is a far different player now than he was when he left the United States in January and that playing in a professional environment has made all the difference.
"I feel like a much different player," Cunningham stated confidently. "I am really happy with my progression. Obviously I've been playing in some Molde II games and even the cup games are one step closer. I'm taking all the positives."
Perhaps the biggest reason for this improvement has been the coaching staff at Molde which is lead by first team head coach Ole Gunner Solskjaer. The staff has been primarily focused on improving the technical side of Cunningham's game and this has yielded positive results so far for the young left back.
"Not only Ole, but the whole coaching staff has been a positive influence on me," Cunningham discussed. "Ole was one of the best attackers in the game so obviously he is going to teach you what a forward is not going to like to play against."
"It's always good to have a coach like that," he added. "I think Ole and his staff has been very good and they are focused on the technical part of your game and being able to play quick. So that's helping me excel the most."
Another positive aspect that Cunningham has enjoyed so far with Molde has been the club's style of play. The Norwegian Tippeligaen is often seen as a very physical league but Cunningham likes the approach that Solskjaer uses. Instead of matching the physical play, Molde instead play soccer with the use of combinations and quick passing through the midfield.
"I guess it really depends on the team," Cunningham pointed out. "It is a physical league but there are a lot of teams that try to play soccer as much as they can. But there are some teams that will try to launch the ball up the field directly to their forward. But ever since Ole and the new coaches have gotten here, they've been dead set on trying to play skilled soccer. Trying to pass the ball around and play with pace."
The transition of becoming a professional in Europe is sometimes difficult for an American teenager. Some talented players have made the move overseas but have not been able to handle the off-field cultural adjustments that come with the new lifestyle.
Cunningham so far has enjoyed the move and feels that the city of Molde has been a great place to begin his career. The people have been nice and the distractions have been limited so that he can completely focus on soccer.
"Every player at some point in their career is going to feel homesick," Cunningham said stoically. "Molde has been a great city or town to come to. I wouldn't say it's small but there aren't many distractions that can take you away. It's a good place to keep my mind on soccer. It's been a smooth transition."
As or what lies ahead, Cunningham says that he doesn't have a timeline despite his steady progress at the club. For now, he is just focused on daily improvement and feels that everything else will take care of itself.
"I don't have a time line," Cunningham concluded. "My main goal is to just keep getting better every day and when things come, they come."