As you go down the roster for the U.S. Men’s National Team, the one overwhelming number that jumps out at you is the relative youth of the team as a whole.
Yes, there are players like Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Chris Wondolowski that are older veterans, but then you have players like Omar Gonzalez, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson who should be around for the 2018 World Cup as well.
However, next to Gonzalez, there is one player that is absolutely crucial to whether or not the U.S. can escape the Group of Death with Germany, Portugal and Ghana to make it to the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup: Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi.
Since Zusi joined the squad as a consistent starter, the USMNT, and more specifically Altidore have enjoyed a lot of success. Altidore’s constant success with Zusi in the lineup actually prompted the creation of the hashtag “Zusidore”, which trended on Twitter during one World Cup Qualifier. With their success throughout qualification, it should be only natural for Jurgen Klinsmann to rely on Zusi to be the team’s main facilitator from the wing.
Zusi’s ability to find other U.S. players in space is unrivaled by everyone on the American roster except maybe Bradley and at times Diskerud. I’m of the opinion that, should the USA decide to move to a 4-4-2 at any point in the World Cup, USMNT legend Donovan should be utilized as more of a “super-sub” for later in the game, leaving Zusi in to swing in crosses to both forwards. This could mean that Donovan and Dempsey are competing for the lone starting spot between the midfield and the strikers in Klinsmann’s formation.
While most see international success in the midfield through stats like goals and assists, one of the biggest crutches that many teams face is that their midfielders get forward on offense, but are left exposed to the counterattack. With group opponents like Portugal and Germany at their best when on the counterattack, the most important aspect that Zusi possesses is his defensive positioning.
Rarely in a USMNT game do you see an opposing player streaking down Zusi’s side of the field without him either chasing him down or getting in the way. With the way South Korea’s offense ran riot on some of the American defenders (Brad Evans, I’m looking at you), Zusi’s tough defense was all that prevented multiple offensive chances for the 53rd-ranked team in the world.
A determination to play hard on both defense and offense is something that cannot be trained in a midfielder, making Zusi one of the USMNT’s most coveted assets.
The future is bright for the USMNT with an elite crosser like Zusi on the field. It’s even brighter when you couple that with the development of Altidore, and the little flashes of brilliance from Diskerud and the potential of Johannsson. However, at the moment the future of American soccer is largely irrelevant, because all that is on the minds of coaches, players and fans alike is the success of the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.
Whether the U.S. is able to navigate the group of death or bow out of the world’s most popular sporting tournament may in fact come down to the play of Zusi, and the rest of the USMNT’s midfield against some of the best players in the world.