KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The moment that Graham Zusi trotted onto the pitch at Sporting Park and basked in the roar of a sellout crowd for a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica, nobody seemed to care who he had replaced.
True, the Sporting KC midfielder was playing in his home stadium Friday night. That was a big reason he was showered with love. But the other, more noteworthy reason was that Zusi immediately gave the Americans a spark, scoring the first goal in what turned into a 2-0 victory.
It was only after he scored in the 77th minute to help the U.S. clinch first place in its group for the third straight cycle that anybody seemed to notice Landon Donovan sitting on the bench.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he made the substitution for “performance-based” reasons, and it was hard to argue. Donovan had struggled in the first half. But it also was evidence that a new, young generation of players is ready to take over the mantle from the previous bunch of standard bearers.
“There’s great depth in this team, and we’re pushing each other in each game and in each practice as well,” Zusi said. “And that competition is needed for a team to do well.”
Zusi’s goal was just the second of his international career, while Donovan holds the U.S. career record for both goals and assists. And it’s not as if Donovan is washed up, either. He has eight goals and eight assists this year, surpassing the single-year point record of 22 he set in 2007.
But the change at halftime Friday was at least a glimpse into a future changing of the guard, and the team that Klinsmann fielded gave several youngsters a chance to impress.
Aron Johannsson, who played for Iceland’s under-21 team and made his U.S. debut in August, got his first international start. Johannsson was helped along on the field by veteran Jozy Altidore, with whom he played briefly for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands.
Johannsson missed on a couple of good looks at the goal, but he consistently found himself in the right place at the right time, and that left Klinsmann feeling good about his future.
“With Aron, it’s simply, Get out there and get connected. Be part of this team going forward,” Klinsmann said. “He missed his chances, but he was there, and that’s good to see. The second half he ran out of gas a little bit, and that’s why we subbed him out of there.”
Johannsson, who got the start because of an injury to Eddie Johnson in training, said his shortcomings were simply a matter of growing accustomed to his teammates.
Other young players who got into the mix included Alejandro Bedoya, who recently joined French club Nantes. It was his crossing pass to Zusi behind the Jamaican defense that resulted in the goal that sent a crowd of 18,467 into a frenzy and the U.S. on to victory Friday.
Another star for Sporting KC, defender Matt Besler, earned his 12th cap. He was instrumental in helping the Americans finish 8-0 without allowing a goal in home qualifiers this cycle.
Then there was Mix Diskerud, who earned his first cap with the national team in 2010 but seemed to have fallen out of favor before Klinsmann’s arrival. The midfielder for Norwegian club Rosenborg BK was active against Jamaica throughout the night, getting several good looks at the goal.
“Great group of guys, and on the field it’s easy to play with them,” Diskerud said. “When we get the ball going and we use each other, we can play. That happened in the second half.”
All the young players got a chance in part because of injuries to more familiar names. Along with Johnson going down, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson were unavailable because of a variety of ailments, and DaMarcus Beasley hurt his hamstring against Jamaica.
That left a bunch of fresh faces trying to make their case for a spot in Brazil.
“We’ve done that pretty well over the last two years to build depth,” Klinsmann said. “A lot of options are on the table, and in May, it’s down to us coaches to say, ‘These 23 guys have the belief and trust to play a really good tournament.’”