CARSON, Calif. – Graham Zusi has figured significantly for the US national team since Jurgen Klinsmann gave him his international debut at the close of 2012's January camp.
And he’s earned a regular a job on the right side of the midfield thanks to a series of strong performances in friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.
The Sporting Kansas City standout has started a dozen games, nine of them in World Cup eliminations, in 18 caps the past two years. But nearly all of them were while Landon Donovan – through injury, sabbatical or playing his way back from said sabbatical – was unavailable.
Donovan has enormous experience at the position, with the national team and the LA Galaxy, and it sure seems the likeliest spot he'd be stationed during the World Cup if Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are the men up top.
Does that mean Zusi is competing with Donovan for a starting job in Brazil?
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” Klinsmann said ahead of the Yanks' friendly Saturday afternoon against Korea Republic at StubHub Center (5 pm ET; ESPN2, WatchESPN, UniMas). “Both players can play either side. So you can play them both, or you decide to play somebody else on one side, and then they compete for the same spot.”
Klinsmann has never included Donovan and Zusi in the same lineup. Only three times have they played in the same US match, and they have been on the field together just once, when Zusi substituted for Alejandro Bedoya in the 84th minute of the World Cup qualifying win over Mexico last September.
Donovan, the speedier and more versatile of the two, also can play up top or centrally behind the forwards, and he's been employed primarily as a forward during the current camp. But the US are missing their first-choice frontliners.
“I think Graham is the one that comes always if it's the right side or from the left side [of midfield],” Klinsmann said. “Meanwhile, Landon can play in the hole, meaning coming underneath the center forward. In this camp, you can look at Landon behind [a target forward] or being the second striker in the middle.
“So that leaves you two options for the wings. Obviously, if Clint and Jozy are playing that, then Landon might go to the left or the right.”
Zusi puts no special significance on a competition with Donovan.
“It doesn't just stop between Landon and myself. It goes beyond us,” Zusi said. “There's 28 guys at this camp who are competing for spots. I look at Landon as a guy who's going to make me better as a player, and if it was up to me, I'd like to be on the field at the same time as him because he makes people around him better as a player.”
Donovan's goals are simple.
“I just want to make the team,” said the veteran of three World Cups who went nearly 11 months without a cap before returning for last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, about three months after the close of his four-month sabbatical. “And the good thing about playing in so many positions and situations and having the experience that I've had is that I can help in a lot of different ways.
“I'm not in a place in my life now where I have this crazy, burning desire to start and score and do everything. I want the team to do well, and I want the team to be successful, and I want to be part of it. Of course, we all have egos, we all get enjoyment out of doing those things, but I want to help this team do well, and I want to help US Soccer make another big step.”