BRIAN SCIARETTA - Monday, January 14, 2013
As the US national team heads into its second week of camp in California, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi is excited to finally be back with the team after training with West Ham United last week.
Zusi, 26, was one of the stand out players at last year's January camp where his performances against Venezuela and Panama caught the eye of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann who began integrating the Florida native into the first team.
By the end of 2012, Zusi was one of the best midfielders in MLS and was peforming well as a starter for the US national team in import World Cup qualifiers. With a breakout year now behind him, the former Maryland Terrapin is looking to continue his success.
"2012 was certainly a great year for me, easily one of the best of my life," Zusi told YA prior to arriving at national team camp. "It's just an all-round exciting and fun year where I experienced a lot of new things. It was my first time with the national team and I had a great season with Kansas City. As far as 2013 goes, I still have a few goals to accomplish with the club and also with country. Personally, I want to continue to get better and maybe get a club championship under my belt and remain with the national team for these qualifying games. If you're not striving to get better every day, there are always people coming up behind you trying catch you."
The annual January camp for the US team is a time where mostly MLS players along with a few European-based players on winter break train for several weeks ahead of a friendly. This year's gathering is no different but it does have added significance in that the first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying falls in the week after camp.
Of the players on the roster for the January camp which will conclude with a friendly against Canada, Zusi is one of the team's most high profiled players as he is likely to be a starter during the initial World Cup qualifying games.
"I am absolutely pumped to be back with the team," Zusi said. "I'm really excited to be back on the field in a competitive environment. I can't tell you how much I've missed it. I'm looking forward to a good few weeks leading up to the friendly against Canada in Houston."
2013 is set to be a really busy year for the US team who will be preparing for both the final round of World Cup qualifying and this summer's Gold Cup. It will be an important year for the team as they try to build towards the World Cup while implementing Klinsmann's system.
When Klinsmann was hired in 2011, he stressed that he wanted to play an attacking style but for most of his tenure, the team has struggled to score goals. Heading into 2013, the task at hand could be more difficult as the team's all-time leading scorer, Landon Donovan, is reportedly considering retirement.
Playing in an attacking position on the right side, Zusi will be asked to play a similar role to Donovan. Despite the pressure that may come in trying to fill the void left by the country's most successful player, Zusi is worried about finding his own way into the team.
"I don't think I can compare myself to a Landon Donovan," Zusi stated. "I need to try to write my own story on the national team. I definitely don't want to compare myself to him because, to be honest, there are not too many people who are going to be able to do what he's done in their career. I'm focused on myself and the team. First, trying to help us qualify for the World Cup and then going there and playing well."
As Zusi is settling back in with the national team, he will be arriving in California on the heels of training last week with English Premier League club West Ham United. Zusi is one of the few top US national team players currently based in MLS but the chance to play in England allowed him to observe the environment in one of the world's top leagues. Unlike many other training stints involving national team players, this one was not initiated by Klinsmann.
During his week in London, Zusi took part in team drills and practices and felt that he performed well.
"It was a great experience overall," Zusi said. "It was good to experience the culture over there and see what their training is like. It's tough with MLS not following the international schedule to stay sharp especially when these World Cup qualifiers are approaching. Obviously there's a little bit of rust because I haven't played a game since November. But that wore off and I felt a lot more comfortable as the sessions went on. I thought I did fine."
Looking back on his first exposure to life in the environment of an English Premier League club, Zusi believes he came away learing a lot about both the Premier League and MLS. While the Premier League is widely considered to be among the best leagues in the world, Zusi's initial impression is that the gap is closing between MLS and top European leagues.
With regards to how his experience compared with his initial expectations before travelling to London, Zusi came away satisfied that his experiences in MLS prepared him well. He also felt reassured that the jump in quality was not as drastic as he believed it was going to be.
"It certainly is a very good league but I think there is a general [misconception]," Zusi explained. "The level is not that far off. The training we are getting in the United States is up to par with the training over there. The gap is definitely closing and it's quite a bit closer than a lot of people think it is. It's actually pretty reassuring to see where we are compared to them. It's good to see we are right there with them."
"It was actually very similar to what I'm used to," he continued. "A lot of the drills that they do, I'm very used to doing with Sporting Kansas City and the national team. It's the same game over there and they do a lot of the same things we do. I guess I don't want to say that I'm shocked but maybe it was a little reassuring that it wasn't as much of a shock as I thought it was going to be."
As for a potential future with West Ham, Zusi did not dismiss that he was there in large part to be evaluated by the London-club. When his week-long trial was over, Zusi did not have any discussions with West Ham coaches or front office staff but he was not expecting that immediately afterward.
West Ham is currently at the middle of their Premier League season and currently sit in 11th place in the 20 team league. While a mid-table finish would be a success for the club after winning promotion just last year, they are struggling recently with just two wins in their past 10 games. On Saturday, they suffered a difficult 3-0 loss to Sunderland.
Should the team's struggles continue, they could begin negotiating for the American who would also need to go through an appeal process for a British work permit since he does not have access to a EU passport.
"I'd imagine in the next week or two they'll be in touch to inform me of where they stand and what they think," Zusi said. "Anytime a team brings a player over, obviously they're looking to judge that player. I don't think this was any different. I'd think it'd be a waste of their time and mine if it wasn't a process where they're looking at me and if the fit was right to add me."
A potential move to one of the world's elite leagues is exciting for Zusi but he insists that he is also happy in Sporting Kansas City who are expected to be a strong contender in MLS in 2013 and in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2013/14.
Instead, Zusi believes he is in a position where he can hold out on a potential transfer until he believes he has found one that is the right fit. Otherwise he is content on remaining with Sporting Kansas City, with whom he signed a long-term deal in 2011.
"If you're not striving for the best training and situation you can be in, then you shouldn't be in the business," Zusi concluded. "But I also believe you need to put yourself in the best situation to succeed. I think that if I went to a top club in a top division and I was sitting on the bench, I don't think I would get as much out of that as if I was in MLS where I was playing just about every minute. It just has to be the right situation for the player. Wherever that is, the best thing for you is to be playing competitive games and getting the experience and time on the field you need to be successful. Wherever that takes me, that's where I'll go."
Graham Zusi and the United States national team will take on Canada on January 29 in Houston and will open the final round of World Cup qualifying on February 6 on the road against Honduras in San Pedro Sula.