Three members of Kansas City’s most successful Major League Soccer team in more than a decade hope to make a similar impact as the United States prepares for its first two friendlies of the year.
Yet Sporting’s Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong and Graham Zusi seek to do more than just play against Venezuela tonight in Glendale, Ariz. or against Panama on Wednesday night in that Central American nation.
“I want to become the go-to guy for the national team,” said Bunbury, Sporting’s co-leader in goals last year. “I know it’s going to take a lot of work. But I want to be looked at as a player who can play an intricate part and impact the team.”
Sapong and Zusi — who are training with the national team for the first time and could make their debuts this week — hope to build on their recent achievements.
“I think this is the best possible thing that could happen for me,” said Sapong, the 2011 MLS rookie of the year and Sporting’s leader in games played.
“Being exposed to this high-quality coaching staff, high-quality fitness trainers and high-quality players in such early stages of my development as a professional player is going to do nothing but maximize my potential.”
Zusi’s main purpose is to “prove that I deserve to be here,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction but in no way am I satisfied with just being here.
“If you get to this level and do well, that can do worlds for your confidence.”
Sporting’s trio and 17 other players with limited or no international experience have been training for three weeks. With most of the national team’s starters playing in Europe, coach Juergen Klinsmann wants to evaluate domestic talent.
“We get two chances to play international games,” Zusi said. “With a lot of the Europe guys out of the picture right now, it’s a big chance for us to step in and prove ourselves.”
Zusi, who led Sporting in assists last season, helped his cause with two goals and an assist in the national team’s two scrimmages last week.
“Graham Zusi has been a very pleasant surprise for us,” said assistant coach Martin Vasquez, who played three years in MLS, coached Chivas USA two years ago and served as one of Klinsmann’s assistants at Bayern Munich.
Bunbury, who could play in the Olympics if the national under-23 team qualifies, scored in the first scrimmage as a substitute.
“I got to see him in college and in his first two years in the league,” Vasquez said. “We were very impressed because of his attacking qualities. He’s somebody we want to continue to watch.”
Bunbury — who has played twice for the United States and scored a goal since making his debut in 2010 — notices a major difference between Klinsmann and the current coach’s predecessor, Bob Bradley.
“We’ve been doing a lot more innovative stuff in terms of nutrition and testing,” Bunbury said, “stuff like testing blood for certain vitamin deficiencies we have.”
Nutrition become more important given the speed of the national team’s practices.
“It’s quite fast,” Zusi said. “Every training session is a chance to prove yourself, so everyone’s going at 100 mph. That takes a lot of getting used to.”
That rapid pace reflects the players’ increased intensity.
“The mind-set and mind state of the players is just a whole different level, whether we’re scrimmaging or just having a weight-lifting session,” Sapong said. “Something I’ve prided myself on in this camp is to take everything a little more seriously and take better care of my body.
“This is a high stage. I want to acclimate my body to this stage and always play at this level, always be in this mind state.”
Accentuating the intensity is the unusually small squad of 20 players.
“Everybody realizes that you’re being looked at more so,” Bunbury said. “You have more chances to showcase yourself and there’s more competition with smaller numbers.”
For Klinsmann, smaller is better.
“I do not like to work in big groups,” Klinsmann said. “To work with the players and give them as much attention as possible from the coaching side, 20 players is perfect.”
Regardless of the numbers or the final roster and lineup decisions, Sporting’s representatives believe that training with the national team will reap dividends beyond this month.
“I feel it’s bringing the best out of everybody,” Bunbury said. “It’s been a fun camp — a lot of hard work but we know it’s going to pay off in the long run.”