Graham Zusi: Why the U.S. Winger Might Be the Key to World Cup Qualification
On Monday afternoon, United States men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his roster for the team’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala.
While there were many surprises on Klinsmann’s roster, one name that was expected was that of Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi.
Perhaps no man in the USMNT player pool has seen his stock rise more over the past year, as Zusi has gone from a little-known Major League Soccer player to a potentially key piece of the U.S. World Cup qualification hopes.
In his college career, Zusi helped guide the Maryland Terrapins to two NCAA titles in 2005 and 2008, scoring the game-winning goal in the 2008 title game. Teammates from his college days comprise an impressive list of up-and-coming American players including Chris Seitz, Maurice Edu, A.J. DeLaGarza, Robbie Rogers, Omar Gonzalez, Zac MacMath and Casey Townsend.
After college, Zusi was drafted in the second round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft by the then-Kansas City Wizards. Not possessing great speed, strength or size in a league still largely representative of physical prowess, Zusi’s MLS career started out slowly. He only started five games in his rookie campaign and four games the year after.
However, Zusi’s unique skill set, patience on the ball and tactical acumen just needed the right situation to flourish, and he found that in 2011 with a newly rebranded Sporting Kansas City. The team’s success dovetailed with Zusi’s individual success, as Sporting won the Eastern Conference championship and Zusi started 25 games, netting five goals and picking up seven assists in a breakout season.
Zusi’s 2011 club success led to a call-up for the 2012 USMNT January camp, a camp traditionally used to suss out young talent for the national team player pool. In the January friendlies, Zusi started both games and stood out as one of the players most likely to make the jump to the “A” team.
Zusi was again called up for the USMNT set of friendlies and initial World Cup qualifiers in May and June, but he didn’t see the field when Klinsmann had his full complement of players available. However, Zusi did enough through the camp, and his continued club form with Sporting (five goals and 15 assists in 29 starts so far this season) earned another call-up for the important Jamaica qualifiers in September.
After the severely disappointing result in Kingston and with the team’s World Cup qualification hopes in serious jeopardy, Klinsmann was forced to insert a much more attack-oriented lineup on the return leg against Jamaica.
Zusi was arguably the biggest surprise on the team sheet that night in Columbus, and he did not disappoint. Making the most of his opportunity, Zusi produced a very solid shift, combining well with right-back Steve Cherundolo as if the two had been partners for years.
Zusi was unlucky not to have scored against Jamaica, with one effort clattering off the crossbar and another being cleared off the line. Eventually, the U.S. got on the scoreboard via a Herculez Gomez free kick, and the U.S. put its World Cup qualification campaign back on track.
Now, headed into the final two group games of CONCACAF World Cup qualification with the U.S. needing results, Zusi potentially finds himself at the heart of the Americans' qualification efforts.
After a solid display that night in Columbus and a very good club season, it will be hard for Klinsmann to leave Zusi off the team sheet against Antigua and Barbuda this Friday.
The U.S. pool was already short of wingers, and injuries are making matters even worse. Landon Donovan limped out of last Saturday’s L.A. Galaxy-Real Salt Lake match with a knee injury, and even though he was called into the USMNT camp, he may not be able to play.
Brek Shea was also called up, but similarly to Donovan, he is working his way back from injury. Shea did not play in FC Dallas’ recent 1-1 draw with Chivas, nor was he even on the bench. Some early reports even had him left off the U.S. roster entirely.
With Donovan and Shea likely out, Klinsmann does not really have another right-sided midfielder on the roster except for Zusi, especially considering that Klinsmann has preferred to play Clint Dempsey as a forward.
Zusi now sits in a position that seemed unfathomable just a few months ago.
With only four caps for the USMNT and the U.S. needing four points over the next two games to guarantee advancement, Zusi looks to be at the heart of U.S. qualification hopes.
Thankfully for U.S. fans, Zusi appears to be the perfect point in his career to help take the U.S. to the next round.
On Friday against Antigua and Barbuda, if he puts together a performance anything like the one he did on September 11th in Columbus, Zusi may find himself at the heart of the USMNT plans into the hexagonal and beyond.
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