SANFORD, Fla. – While Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifying match between the US national team and Panama (7 pm ET; ESPN2, Univision, UDN) represents a homecoming for Central Florida natives Dax McCarty and Graham Zusi, returning home this time will have a much different feel.
“This is a game we’ve been working toward for the past couple years now,” Zusi said after Monday’s USMNT training session. “I think everyone is very much on the same page. We know what’s at task. Our focus will be laser sharp this week, and we’ll be ready on Friday.”
It was five years ago when Zusi, a Longwood, Fla. native, was called up to represent the USMNT — and, coincidentally, his first training camp with the national team was in Orlando.
Throughout the last five years, getting a call-up continues to bring excitement for the Sporting Kansas City defender — especially a one like this one that includes a huge game at Orlando City Stadium.
“I certainly feel more comfortable but the feeling of getting called in never changes,” Zusi said. “I get the same amount of excitement for my 55th cap as I did for my first one. Yes, the comfort level is little bit different, but the level of excitement is there.
“I had the opportunity to play in Orlando in MLS this year, and I was blown away by the fan support and atmosphere they created. I'm looking forward to a lot of the same on Friday.”
For McCarty returning to play in Orlando is a realization of how far soccer has grown in Central Florida, while being able to play for the national team brings even more prestige for the Winter Park, Fla. native.
“I grew up 10 minutes from where Orlando City Stadium is. It’s great to see how far soccer has come in this community,” the Chicago Fire midfielder said. “With the success Orlando City has had with their fans, it’s been amazing to see. ... It’s going to be an honor to be able to put on the crest in the place I grew up. I think there’s no greater honor.”
Of course, playing in a great new stadium in their home country doesn’t necessarily mean the Americans will prevail. The USMNT fell 2-0 to Costa Rica last month at Red Bull Arena, where many Costa Rican fans were in attendance.
Now, with the USMNT's World Cup position in a more precarious position, head coach Bruce Arena is hoping the crowd in Orlando delivers.
“Well if you saw our last game in New York, it didn’t translate as well,” Arena said. “We’re hopeful this is a massive crowd that’s supporting the US team.”