Former Maryland teammates Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez, who will be in Baltimore on Saturday playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals, had plenty of important developmental years en route to the U.S. men’s national soccer team.
One may stand out the most. In 2008, Zusi and Gonzalez were key components on the Terps’ national championship team.
Zusi, a senior midfielder and four-year varsity player, saved his best college soccer for last with the game-winning goals in the tournament’s semifinal and championship games. Gonzalez, a junior, who, at 6 feet 5, emerged as the team’s dominating central defender and went on to earn first-team All-America honors.
“You look at that team and it was just incredible from top to bottom,” Zusi said. “We all had each other’s backs and guys stepped up at different times when we needed it most. That final four was a particularly good one for me. It did a great deal for my confidence and, really, I think almost that final four alone kind of put my name out there. I went into the player combine and got drafted [into Major League Soccer] from there. That was just a fun team to be a part of, so talented and we were a very tight-knit group as well.”
In the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, the 26-year-old Gonzalez was the third overall pick, going to the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Zusi, 28, was taken in the second round by the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City). As their professional careers flourished, the two have become regular contributors for Team USA.
Teammates again, they'll be in uniform at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday at 5 p.m. as the Americans continue their quest for a second straight Gold Cup championship. The U.S. team, which won its fifth Gold Cup title in 2013, finished with a 2-0-1 mark to win Group A and will take on Cuba, the third-place finisher from Group C.
A deep roster has been vital to the team's success. Zusi and Gonzalez, both of whom played substantial roles in last year's World Cup, earned starts in the second game of group play, a 1-0 win over Haiti on July 10. The two are working to be ready for when coach Jurgen Klinsmann calls on them next, quite possibly Saturday.
"This is a long tournament with very short turnaround in between games, so we've really relied on utilizing everyone on the roster and when your name is called you have to be ready," Zusi said. "There hasn't been too much fall off from one guy to the next, so everyone here is called on to step up and do really well."
Gonzalez, who earned his first cap (given for appearances in international competition) with the senior team in 2010 and takes 27 into Saturday's game, has enjoyed being reunited with his former college teammate. The two were roommates at College Park.
"It's been amazing to get to the national team and be able to play with [Graham] — like we haven't skipped a beat from college," Gonzalez said. "We just get back into camp and it's just like old times. It's really great to see him having just as much success as I am and it speaks to the great program that Maryland has in preparing you to become professionals. That was huge for both of us."
Zusi, who was first called up to the senior team in 2011 and has earned 33 caps, came to Maryland as a quiet freshman in 2005, earning playing time on a Terrapin team that also won a national championship. Gonzalez came the following year, a young freshman straight out of the U.S. Under-17 residency program.
Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said as Zusi's confidence grew on the field, his personality emerged off the field. Gonzalez came to Maryland with unquestioned natural skills and a bubbly personality, but he needed to mature.
"So you had an introvert and an extrovert — one guy that needed to take more responsibility on the field in Omar and one guy that needed to get his mojo going in Graham," Cirovski said. "They are two very different people and two of the nicest young men I've ever had the privilege to coach."
Cirovski's program has been a factory for developing players that reach the next level and beyond. In addition to Zusi and Gonzalez, 17 other Maryland players are currently on MLS rosters. A.J. DeLaGarza, Maurice Edu, Robbie Rogers and Rodney Wallace — all former teammates of Zusi and Gonzalez — also have played for the national team.
Zusi said the professional atmosphere Cirovski creates at Maryland and the excellence he demands from every player makes the transition to the next level easier.
"Being at Maryland was special for me because I grew not only as player, but a person. I was able to grow up in a great environment with great coaches, great teammates who I'm still friends with to this day. So it was a really amazing time at Maryland and I love thinking about those times," he said.
For Cirovski, watching Zusi and Gonzalez excel at last year's World Cup in Brazil — both made two starts and Zusi finished with two assists — "was an incredible source of pride."
It also came as no surprise.
"Just to see how far they have come, to see their continued growth and development, and also the kind of people they have become is rewarding," Cirovski said. "They are two of the most-liked players in our country. They are just really great people, endearing people. They play hard and they also do things the right way, so I'm very proud of them."
On Saturday, Baltimore gets a firsthand look at the successful Maryland products as the U.S. team tries to move forward at the start of the tournament's knockout stage.
"We did our job and got out of the group stage in the position we wanted to — the top spot," Zusi said. "So it puts us in a good position to get through to where we want to go. Baltimore is the next stop in our journey and we're looking forward to another great atmosphere."