Two former Maryland Terps National Championship winning soccer players are just days away from their first World Cup game. The once-every-four years soccer tournament is set to kick off next Thursday in Brazil, and when Team USA plays their first game on June 16, former Terrapins Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi will likely be making their first World Cup start. Gonzalez helped lead the Terrapins to the 2005 National Championship and Zusi scored the winning goal in the 2008 National Championship.
Both players had successful tenures in College Park, and now the two will play together on the world’s biggest stage against the best soccer players in the world. The United States fell victim to the ping pong balls in group selection and drew the likes of Germany, Ghana, and Portugal in their group. Ghana has knocked the USA out of the previous two World Cups; Germany is a favorite to win the tournament; Portugal has one of the best players in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo). Its going to take an unbelievable three game stretch for the US team to be one of the two squads that advances out of this group to the Knockout Stage of the tournament.
Without any internationally known superstars, the United States cruised through qualifying in the past two years. Part of that success is due to Zusi’s role in the midfield and Gonzalez role on defense. Zusi lead Sporting Kansas City to the MLS Title last year and his development as an attacking midfielder has translated to the international stage. He has scored twice in qualifying in four appearances and has an assist in seven international appearances with team USA. Gonzalez has played in five World Cup qualifiers, seven international games, and one Gold Cup game in the past year.
Zusi and Gonzalez are both expected to be in the starting eleven for Team USA when they take on Ghana in their first game on June 16. While both players will be in different roles for Team USA, manager Jurgen Klinsmann will rely heavily on their experience to lead the team. Both players have won MLS and College Cups, and this experience will be important for them to bring to the pitch. Team USA has limited World Cup success, but both of these players have been involved in a successful qualifying run, and they will be counted on as leaders of this USA squad.
Gonzalez has one of the toughest jobs on the team as the leader of the defensive unit. The United States is still working on finding a back line that plays well together and can feed the midfield that features Michael Bradley and Zusi. America’s defense is going to be tested often in the three group stage matches, and it will be important for Gonzalez and goalkeeper Tim Howard to keep the unit organized. Germany has one of the deadliest attacking units in the world, featuring several threats to score and a style of play that aims to create chances for the full ninety. Cristiano Ronaldo has been carrying Portugal for years, and against Sweden he put forth one of the greatest qualifying games ever seen as he battled against PSG star Zlatan Ibrahimović. Slowing down both of these teams will be challenging task for Gonzalez and the United States defense.
Graham Zusi is playing alongside Michael Bradley in the midfield, a player who has emerged as one of the top midfielders in the tournament. Both players will have the task of feeding Seattle Sounders star Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. It will be vital for Zusi and Bradley to set up Altidore for easy opportunities as he is coming off a disappointing season in the Barclays Premier League. Dempsey is a known commodity and a player that opponents will be focusing on along with Bradley, which should leave Zusi with opportunities to create chances for himself and his teammates. If Team USA is too succeed in the World Cup, Zusi will need to take advantage of those opportunities.
The transfer period following the World Cup is one of the largest transfer markets. Teams are able to see a lot of players they normally do not get to watch, and they get to see them play against top competition. The dream for every soccer player is to tour in Europe, and during the World Cup the European club teams are looking to find the lesser known players from North and South America, and Africa. While both Zusi and Gonzalez are in great situations in the MLS, with a big World Cup performance both of them could find themselves receiving European interest.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, Zusi and Gonzalez will need to think back to their College Cup days and channel a survive and advance mentality. It won’t be easy for the United States to advance past the group stage, but if they are to capture the hearts of American soccer fans they will need Zusi and Gonzalez to do what they did in College Park and lead the team to victory. If there was ever a time for the #HeATerp hashtag to trend worldwide it would be after Zusi delivers a ninetieth minute strike past Manuel Neur to beat the Germans and send team USA to the Knockout Stage.