From far and wide, well-earned plaudits poured in after Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi’s strong performance Tuesday for the United States against Jamaica in FIFA World Cup qualifying action at Columbus Crew Stadium.
Battered into submission on four days earlier by the Reggae Boyz, the U.S. men’s national team needed a victory.
Hoping to find a spark in the midfield, which looked sluggish Sept. 7 in a 2-1 loss in Kingston, Jamaica, coach Jurgen Klinsmann inserted Zusi into the starting lineup.
Zusi then delivered a sterling performance that all but ensured his inclusion on the national team roster in the October qualifying window.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be called in for the next trip,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “When you have a performance like that, everybody sees it and everybody knows it. That’s the big step for a player like him. Now, it’s can he repeat that? And there’s where the next piece therein lies.”
Zusi cracked a shot off the crossbar in the sixth minute and nearly connected on another opportunity later in the half with Hercules Gomez. He also combined with Steve Cherundolo to create consistent havoc on the right side in the first half.
“It was obviously my first minutes in (World Cup) qualifying play,” Zusi said. “For that to be a start was pretty exciting. Personally, for me, it’s much easier to start a game than to sub in, but I think that bodes very well for me too.”
Zusi made three other appearances this year with the U.S. men’s national team — all 1-0 victories. He debuted Jan. 21 against Venezuela and scored the game-winner four days later against Panama.
Last month, Zusi participated in a history-making friendly with Mexico at Estadio Azteca, the first-ever win for the U.S. men on Mexican soil.
But the matchup with Jamaica counted and the result allowed the U.S. to move into a three-way tie in Group A in CONCACAF qualifying.
Zusi, who was the only MLS player to start the game, received plenty of credit for making that possible.
“Every time you get called in, you’re trying to progress your game,” Zusi said. “This is my first year being in the mix for international duty, so I came in in January and tried to make an impression. From then on, you’re trying to make every appearance better than your previous one.”
That might be tough moving forward, barring a game-winning goal or assist Oct. 12 at Antigua and Barbuda or Oct. 16 against Guatemala at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Asked what it would mean to suit up for the U.S. men’s national team in his club’s home stadium, Zusi couldn’t hold back the wide smile that is rapidly becoming something of his trademark — killing ’em with kindness — along with his longish hair.
“That would be pretty special, I think,” Zusi said. “To do it with a crowd base that’s primarily probably SKC fans would be a lot of fun. That would be a blast to play in front of your home fans (with the U.S. men’s national team).”
For now, though, the focus for Zusi — as well as the three other players who recently returned from international duty, Roger Espinoza (Honduras), Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone) and Peterson Joseph (Haiti) — is staying atop the MLS Eastern Conference standings and battling for the Supporter’s Shield.
“The only thing I can control is how I’m playing with the club, and that’s what they’re looking at,” Zusi said. “The reason you get called in to international duty is because you’re performing well with your club. That’s what really all my focus is on.”