Three Sporting Kansas City players face distinct challenges in their respective quests to represent the United States men’s soccer team.
Matt Besler wants to make a good first impression. Graham Zusi seeks to build on his achievements from last year. Benny Feilhaber hopes to return to the form that earned him playing time in the 2010 World Cup.
All three have been training with 22 other players for the past month at the Home Depot Center during the national team’s annual January camp. The squad is preparing not only for Tuesday night’s friendly against Canada in Houston — but also for the first game in the final round of regional World Cup qualifying: Feb. 6 in Honduras.
U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann said as many as nine players could find themselves on the roster for next month’s qualifier.
“We’ve been going hard here,” Besler, 25, said of the practices. “We’ve been going two or three times a day. Just the wear and tear on your body makes it a little bit more of a grind, physically and mentally.”
Besler, Major League Soccer’s defender of the year last season, could make his international debut against Canada. He trained briefly with Klinsmann’s team in August for a friendly in Mexico but did not make the game-day roster.
Helping Besler during this extended camp is the tactical similarity between the national team and Sporting KC.
“They both want to win the ball back as quickly as possible and as high up on the field as possible,” Besler said. “When we do win it, we want to score as quickly as possible.
“It’s awesome. In the second or third day here, when we were going over how we wanted to play, I was thinking, ‘This looks similar. I’ve heard this before.’ I was excited. It gave me more confidence. I knew what to do and I knew what we were thinking.”
Implementing that approach means incorporating some of Sporting KC’s practice techniques.
“We’ve done three or four of the exact same drills that we do at Sporting,” Besler said. “It’s just with different people and the speed is a little bit faster.”
Zusi’s presence also helped Besler adjust.
“I definitely asked Graham a lot of questions about what to expect — what kind of drills we do, what the fitness test is like, what the meals are like,” Besler said. “Coming in with that knowledge really helps you.”
Zusi’s presence at last year’s camp, his first, dramatically affected him. Not only did the midfielder play six games for the United States, start three qualifiers and score a goal. Zusi also led MLS with 15 assists and became one of three finalists for the league’s MVP award.
“He became a more mature and a more confident player,” Klinsmann said. “He became more demanding of himself. He’s always asking. He’s always looking for what’s next. It’s a joy to work with him.”
Zusi, 26, developed those traits in the crucible of international soccer.
“Playing is kind of life or death,” Zusi said. “Games tend to be very high-paced, very physical. That speed is the main difference. Decision-making is another one. You really need to know what you want to do before the ball gets to you.”
Playing with the United States team enhanced Zusi’s impact with Sporting KC.
“Your thought process may be a little sharper and quicker,” he said. “When you do go back, sometimes it does seem like the game is moving a little bit slower, even though it may not be.”
Feilhaber held the same position three years ago as Zusi: a young, creative midfielder with potential. Before playing in the 2010 World Cup, Feilhaber competed in the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2008 Olympics.
But Feilhaber’s discouraging season with the New England Revolution last year made him expendable. He finished with only one goal and two assists while starting 23 of 29 games.
“He didn’t have the best season; we knew that,” Klinsmann said. “But we see his potential. We see his capability to play on a very high level. He can be a difference-maker. The question is, how often are you a difference-maker?”
For Feilhaber, being a difference-maker means keeping his passion from sabotaging his performance.
“One of the things I have to improve is resilience to adversity,” said Feilhaber, 28. “Last year, we didn’t win as many games as we would’ve liked, and that got to me. I love winning. I hate losing, and that brought out the worst in me.
“I have to look at the bigger picture, let little things go — mistakes by myself, by my teammates, by the referee. I think I let it get to me too much in games. I want to hate losing. I’ve just got to know how to channel it better.”
Feilhaber, who was born in Rio de Janeiro before moving to New York when he was 6, finds unique incentive from the next World Cup.
“Having the World Cup in Brazil is a huge motivational factor for me,” he said. “It’s going to be in front of my entire family. I know I can be there. Having said that, I’ve got to get back to that level where I was two, three years ago. I don’t feel like I’ve been there and I think Jürgen sees that, as well.”