Graham Zusi making his own way with USMNT: Landon Donovan's shoes "aren't mine to fill"

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The way Graham Zusi sees it, he's not the next anybody. He's his own player, making his own way as a trusted regular on Jurgen Klinsmann's US national team.

And any time Landon Donovan wants to try to win back a spot, after taking a break from club and country to rediscover his love for the game, he's welcome to try.

“I'm sure of the fact that if – when – Landon comes back, he's going to be judged the same as every other player,” the Sporting Kansas City winger said Thursday, after returning from two starts in a crucial pair of World Cup qualifying matches. “If Landon's playing well, I'm sure he's going to be in the mix of things.”

That momentary “if” didn't come off as Zusi slipping in a dig at the longtime face of U.S. Soccer, who recently rejoined the LA Galaxy and expressed a desire this week to work back into the national squad. Klinsmann has publicly shown impatience with Donovan, and Zusi's stock was already rising even before the veteran's self-imposed exile.

READ: Donovan argues mental health should be treated like physical health

“I don't think they're my shoes to fill,” Zusi said during Sporting's weekly news conference. “Him being out opens the door for many people to come in and try to take his spot, but I'm not looking at it as though they're his shoes for me to fill. It's an opportunity for someone to come in and try to take his spot, and I'm one of those people.”

Zusi's performance in Tuesday's scoreless draw against Mexico at Estadio Azteca showed exactly why Klinsmann has made him a regular. He played a gritty two-way role for 82 minutes, recording one of the match's biggest defensive moments with a 30-yard sprint to head the ball away from Ángel Reyna just outside the American goal.

He has never lost at Azteca, having also played there as a sub in the United States' 1-0 friendly win last summer.

READ: Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes reflects on USMNT success: "MLS has changed everything"

“Both times were incredible atmospheres,” said Zusi, who expects – along with Sporting and US defender Matt Besler – to start Saturday's home game against the East-leading Montreal Impact (8:30 pm ET, watch on MLS Live). “This one was a notch higher. The implications of this game being a World Cup qualifier just made them in a bit more of a frenzy.”

Zusi's reaction to all that energy might rankle Mexican fans who have long seen Azteca as an impregnable fortress.

“I had a lot of fun,” he said on Thursday. “I had so much fun out there playing. When you can stop being intimidated by the size and the numbers, you can kind of use that to your advantage. It helps build you and gets you excited out there.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.