Given the chance to show his skills on an international stage in front of his home fans, Graham Zusi didn't disappoint.
The Sporting Kansas City midfielder, playing for his country at Livestrong Sporting Park for the first time, turned in a solid 78-minute performance in the United States' 3-1 World Cup qualifying win over Guatemala on Tuesday.
"It's a different opponent and different team,” Zusi told reporters afterward. “But it's familiar at the same time because of the venue and the fans. All in all it was a lot of fun for me tonight. It was just an incredible atmosphere, and you'd expect nothing less."
The win advanced the US to the Hexagonal, the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF. And while it's premature to anoint anyone as Landon Donovan's heir apparent, Zusi – one of only two MLSers in the starting XI on Tuesday – has made a case for figuring prominently into coach Jurgen Klinsmann's attacking midfield plans for the Hex.
“He's come in and from the first time he's been shown a real eagerness to improve and to try and make a difference,” Klinsmann said in the postmatch news conference. “His soccer ability really helps us. If we tilt him out on the right, he finds a good way of playing out wide but coming inside and playing between the lines. Going forward, we're going to expect more and more out of him."
Zusi, who only earned his first cap in January, has made three straight starts for the USMNT in qualifying play. Over that span, during which the United States rebounded from a 2-1 loss to Jamaica to finish group play on a 3-0 run, he has impressed his teammates as well as his coach.
“Graham's really done well,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said after Tuesday's match. “He got his chance and really grabbed hold of it. hat's what you have to do at the highest level to be good. A lot of guys get chances, but they don't take them. He's taken it and it's been fantastic.”
The Livestrong Sporting Park crowd cheered loudest for Zusi during pregame introductions and saluted him with chants of “Zeus” when he was subbed off for Maurice Edu.
"If you don't have a little bit of nervous energy from the atmosphere that was created out here, there's something wrong with you,” he said. “I was able to feed off the fans. They give you a lot of energy out there.”