Jurgen Klinsmann’s most difficult decision was keeping midfielder Graham Zusi on the bench Friday night during the first half of the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifier against Jamaica.
Starting Zusi in the second half was his easiest decision.
Once Zusi took the field, he brought the team and the 18,467 flag-waving, chanting fans at Sporting Park to life with his goal in the 77th minute, sparking a 2-0 victory.
“I told Graham before the game to be ready at halftime; you’re going to play in your home stadium, don’t worry about it,” Klinsmann said. “He was part of changing a lot of the energy, creating more chances, and when he scored that goal, it will be a special memory for him.”
For Zusi, the first half, in which the United States had difficulty finding an offensive rhythm, was the longest 45 minutes of his soccer life.
“You always want to be on the field contributing as much as possible,” said Zusi, who opened the second half in place of Landon Donovan, the national team’s all-time leading scorer. “You sit there and try to read the game while you’re on the bench.
“When I learned I was going to go in there in the second half, I was excited to get in there and make a stamp on the game. I knew we were struggling to create chances, and my job coming off the bench was just that, to cause a spark and get things going.”
The United States already was assured of a spot in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the victory clinched first place in the CONCACAF standings for the third straight World Cup cycle.
The U.S., 6-2-1, can set a record with 22 points when it closes out qualifying on Tuesday at Panama, 1-3-5 after a 2-1 loss at Mexico. The U.S. went 5-0-0 at home in the qualifying round and outscored its opponents 8-0 in those matches. Jamaica fell to 0-5-4.
Still, this one didn’t come easy. A mostly uneventful match appeared headed for a scoreless draw before Zusi triggered a two-goal flurry in a span of four minutes.
Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya’s hard work on the right flank maintained possession, and he centered a pass to the top of the penalty area for Zusi, who cranked a shot past goalkeeper DuWayne Kerr for his second international goal.
“Ali did well to get in on the right side,” Zusi said. “His initial cross was blocked, but he stuck at it and got the second effort into me, and after a little bit of a mis-hit by me, I saw it go into the bottom left (of the goal).
“It was a nice one to get, especially in front of the home fans. It made it a little extra special and I’m sure for them as well.”
As soon as the ball settled in the back of the net, Zusi was mobbed by teammates, and the first to greet him in the celebration was defender Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City.
“It was one of my harder sprints of the game,” said a smiling Besler, who played all 90 minutes in his 12th international game.
Four minutes later, Jozy Altidore caught the Jamaica defense standing still and converted a cross from Edgar Castillo, another second-half substitution.
“We expected a tight game,” said Klinsmann. “Jamaica wasn’t going to come here and give us points. They’re disappointed with their (play in the qualifying) … they were very organized. They hung in there and made sure we didn’t find the gaps we needed to find chances.
“We said at halftime, we had to raise the bar here, raise the tempo, and that’s what we did. We played faster and it opened up. The chances came. I felt on the bench it was only a question of time that we’d score.”
Winning this match, even if a World Cup berth was assured, was important to the team, and especially the two Sporting Kansas City players.
“It mattered,” Zusi said, “first for our confidence, and for the possible seeding in Brazil as well. We want to win as many games as possible to possibly sneak into the top 10.”
Not to mention the fact this was game was not only on U.S. soil, but in Kansas City, where Besler grew up.
“The last five or 10 minutes,” Besler said, “when we were really playing well, and we scored that second goal, I was looking around at all the fans. That was a moment I’ll always remember.”