Kerry Zavagnin has arguably been the most valuable performer this season for a surprising Kansas City Wizards side that heads into the final MLS weekend with a chance to claim the league's best overall record. Equally impressive has been that his form this year has not been lost on the U.S. national team management.
After preseason injuries to Preki and Igor Simutenkov, there were some low expectations for the Wizards -- but Zavagnin's leadership in central midfield has been one of the key factors in the club's consistency throughout the campaign.
And on Jan. 18 of this year, Zavagnin made just his third appearance for the full U.S. national team. Yet since, he's played in six of the USA's 12 matches (four of them starts), and in last Saturday's 2-0 win against El Salvador, received his first assist while playing for the Red, White and Blue.
"I understand that it's been a good year, but I'm also very conscious of the fact that if you stop trying to get better, that's when everything is going to catch up with you and you're not going to be as successful as you probably would like to be," Zavagnin said.
Going into the El Salvador match, Zavagnin said he wanted to improve his ability to see and play the early pass. Seizing a somewhat rare opportunity to attack, the 30-year-old midfielder took a throw-in from DaMarcus Beasley at the top of the box on Saturday and, with defenders closing, found an open Brian McBride who subsequently scored the USA's first goal in the World Cup qualifying victory.
"I had a couple options of trying to dribble through or lay it off to Brian," Zavagnin said. "I think I did the easy part, laying it to Brian, and he did well to turn. Obviously, the finish was very good."
For his assist and his usual ball-hawking that often squashes any momentum an opponent has made through midfield, Zavagnin was named man of the match. Yet, he was not satisfied.
"If there would have been a criticism of my game, I would probably have to say that I didn't get the ball forward as often as I would have liked to. But, at the same time, I didn't make many mistakes that gave them any opportunities," he said. "It's still something that I'm working on, playing the ball forward and being more decisive with my passing. And that's something I'm probably more critical of than anybody else."
Zavagnin will likely be counted upon again Wednesday night, when the USA plays host to Panama at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Though he didn't play in Panama City -- when the USA allowed a second-half goal before Cobi Jones scored a dramatic equalizer in stoppage time -- Zavagnin is certainly aware of what awaits with an agile and physically strong Panama side.
"We didn't fare as well as we would have liked the last time out despite the fact that we got the tie. I don't think we played as well as we could have or should have," Zavagnin said. "This game, we know what's on the line -- we know that three points will get us into the next round, so I don't think we need much motivation other than that."
Zavagnin has been joined by Wizards teammate Josh Wolff for this set of two qualifiers in five days, and Wolff started and played 88 minutes in San Salvador. Zavagnin said his club teammate adds an important dimension to the national team.
"He has the ability to get behind defenders and to stretch the game. One of the reasons we've been so successful in Kansas City is because of that, and that's something the national team has been missing for a little while, that quick threat up there to get behind opposing defenses," Zavagnin said. "We do have players [like that] with Landon and DaMarcus, but [when] you throw a guy like Wolffie into the mix, [he] just adds another threat."
Zavagnin said there's another potential game-breaker in Kansas City in striker Davy Arnaud. Though the second-year man has nine goals on the season and is fifth on the MLS Budweiser Scoring Leaders chart, Arnaud hasn't yet won his first cap with the national team.
"I've been playing with Davy day in and day out. With what he's done for us this year, I would not be surprised to see him called in to a national team camp," Zavagnin said. "He's a guy that continues to work and continues to get better. With that approach and the numbers that he has put up this year, he's a guy that deserves to be called in. And Bruce [national team manager Arena] is pretty good about recognizing when players have had good years, so I would hope him to reap the rewards of what he's done."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.