CARSON, Calif. — For three Sporting Kansas City players, the United States men’s soccer team’s annual winter camp provides different opportunities.
By JOSEPH D’HIPPOLITO
Special to The Star
Graham Zusi and Matt Besler hope to solidify their chances of playing in this summer’s World Cup, while Benny Feilhaber seeks to revive a dormant international career.
All three Sporting players a chance to impress United States men’s coach Juergen Klinsmann when the U.S. plays South Korea in an international friendly at 4 p.m. today at the StubHub Center.
Since receiving their first invitations to the annual camp, Besler and Zusi have carved strong footholds on both the national team and Sporting KC.
After attending his first camp in January 2012, Zusi led the MLS that season with 15 assists. In the ensuing two years, the midfielder made the league’s Best 11 twice, became Sporting Kansas City’s most valuable player twice and helped it win the MLS Cup last year.
With the national team last year, Zusi started nine games and appeared as a substitute three times. He scored two goals and added two assists. Both goals came during World Cup qualifying, where Zusi made six starts in nine games.
For Zusi, increased success reflects bolstered confidence.
“That’s the thing I can pinpoint the most,” Zusi said. “My first January camp, my main goal was to make some kind of an impression. As you get more and more time with the team, your confidence grows.
“The longer I’m here, the more confident I get in playing my game.”
Besler’s impact on the national team was so immediate that observers consider him a potential World Cup starter.
He attended his first camp 13 months ago after being selected MLS’s defender of the year and a member of the Best 11 in 2012. Besler made his international debut in a 0-0 tie with Canada last Jan. 29, then started 10 of his next 11 games.
Those 10 starts included six World Cup qualifiers. In five of them, Besler played every minute.
Besler believes playing for the United States helps his play with Sporting.
“It actually slows the game down,” Besler said. “You’re able to see things a little better, see some of the openings. The progress I’ve made put me in the position I’m in today.”
Feilhaber, who turned 29 on Jan. 19, already represented the United States in the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics. But he played just one half for the national team last year as a substitute in the tie against Canada.
In his first year with Sporting Kansas City, Feilhaber started all four playoff games after making 22 starts during the regular season. For Feilhaber, last season’s experience gave him the necessary skills to adapt to Klinsmann’s demands.
“I think I’m quite a bit different,” Feilhaber said. “There’s a lot of things I’ve learned playing in a new system that really applies well to how Juergen wants the national team to play.
“I’ve tried to apply those things (in camp), whether it’s pressing the ball a little higher on defense, trying to win the ball in advantageous spots and, offensively, being able to go at players and create opportunities.”
This year’s camp also held unique personal significance for Feilhaber, a native of Rio de Janeiro. Feilhaber and the rest of the squad spent 12 days training in Brazil, site of the World Cup.
“I was able to talk to my grandma and my grandfather,” Feilhaber said. “They came down to spend my birthday with me. It was nice to see my family, to train in my homeland and to be able to speak Portuguese. It was pretty exciting.”
The team spent 12 days in Sao Paulo, its base during the World Cup, and performed a logistical dress rehearsal for its performance this summer.
“Just being able to see it beforehand is going to help us out a lot,” Zusi said. “There are little things you can’t predict being in a foreign country, hotels and what not. For players and for staff, it was a great way to iron out those little details that, sometimes, you don’t think about.”
It also provided a unique form of motivation.
“Being down there, you get a little glimpse, a little taste of what it’ll be like,” Feilhaber said about the World Cup. “I’m sure everybody in this camp wants to get back there, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that.”