Sporting trio hopes US experience helps down the line

Sporting KC's Graham Zusi in action for the US

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes was happy enough to see the US national team go 2-0 in its January matches.

Even better was seeing all three of Kansas City’s call-ups get onto the field, and watching Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi net a game-winning goal in just his second cap.

But Vermes, a member of the US' World Cup team in 1990, has a long-range reason for being pleased with significant game time for Zusi and forwards Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong. He expects his club to qualify for the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League, and last week’s 1-0 win in Panama City gave Sporting’s trio their first lesson in what it takes to win in front of a hostile Central American crowd.

“It’s one thing when you’re playing in a stadium in MLS,” Vermes said. “It’s another thing when you go to another country and start to see what that’s like. It definitely takes it to another level in regards to how the fans treat you, the condition of the field, the stadium, the food, everything. The more guys who can get that experience, the better for some of these competitions, like CONCACAF, that we want to be in.”

Actually, Sapong said, the level of fan intensity wasn’t far from that at a match against Real Salt Lake, for instance.

“I’d say in terms of hostility, there wasn’t too much of a difference between Rio Tinto and Panama,” said Sapong, who came off the bench against Panama as well as a 1-0 win over Venezuela on Jan. 21. “But that’s our goal. If we’re going to get to CONCACAF, we’re going to have to face a lot of hostile environments and hostile fans.”

The key to taking a Panama’s fans out of the equation, Zusi said, was in first taking them out of his head.

“If you can check out mentally from all the noise and hostility and just focus on your game plan and play that game plan, it really takes the crowd out of there,” he said. “When you can take the crowd out of it, it boosts your team’s confidence.”

All three players, speaking to MLSsoccer.com by phone after their return home, agreed with Vermes, confirming that the rowdy fans weren’t the only challenge of playing in Central America.

“It’s hot and it’s humid, and the stadiums aren’t at all like what we’re used to,” said Bunbury, who started both matches. “Being able to play in places like that is good experience if we want to be in the CONCACAF Champions League.”

Zusi, who scored the game-winner against Panama and was in the starting XI against Venezuela, said the victory also showed US coach Jurgen Klinsmann that MLS-based players deserve a look for upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

“For us to seal it up and come out with the win down there was really big for us,” he said. “It did wonders for our confidence, and it proves – at least to Jurgen – that MLS guys can do it against some tough adversity.”