Ex-Maryland stars Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez shine for the U.S. World Cup team


Former Maryland defender Omar Gonzalez, left, made his first start at the World Cup on Thursday against Germany. Gonzalez and former Terrapins teammate Graham Zusi are both expected to start again Tuesday against Belgium. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, Sasho Cirovski will welcome many of his University of Maryland soccer players to his home in Howard County to watch the U.S.-Belgium World Cup match.

Like at gatherings around the country during the U.S. squad’s captivating run, they will watch on multiple TVs and devour food platters. It’s a pro-American crowd, for sure, but also very much a pro-Terrapins gathering.

With former College Park pupils Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez expected to start, Cirovski and his squad will take particular interest in the round-of-16 encounter in Salvador.

“Incredibly proud to see them both representing the Maryland community and college soccer,” Cirovski said Sunday. Zusi served on both the 2005 and ’08 national championship squads, and Gonzalez joined him on the second title team before turning pro a year early.

Maryland is the only NCAA program to have multiple representatives on the 23-man U.S. squad, which features 11 players who passed through the university system for at least two years.

In 2010, defender Clarence Goodson and midfielder Maurice Edu flew the Maryland flag in South Africa. They were among the final cuts this year.

In their first World Cup adventures, Zusi, 27, and Gonzalez, 25, have played important roles in helping the United States finish second in Group G, one of the tournament’s most treacherous quartets.

Zusi, a right-side midfielder who did not make his U.S. debut until 2012, assisted on John Brooks’s late winning goal shortly after entering the opener against Ghana. He has started the past two matches.

Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5 central defender who entered the mix in earnest 17 months ago, received good reviews after going the distance in his first start, a 1-0 loss to Germany on Thursday.

Slowed by a knee injury during training camp and out of favor in the tune-up matches, Gonzalez was a surprise appointment in place of veteran Geoff Cameron for the group finale. After whiffing on an early clearance, he gained confidence and helped repel Germany’s frequent forays.

“This is the type of game that I’ve always dreamed of being in,” said Gonzalez, MLS’s 2011 defender of the year and 2012 MLS Cup MVP with the Los Angeles Galaxy. “There is not much thinking into that. Once the whistle blows, it’s business time and all the other emotions go out the window.”

Given his response, Gonzalez is projected to start again alongside Matt Besler — Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s first-choice partnership through much of the World Cup qualifying campaign.

Klinsmann’s decision to use Cameron in the middle — instead of on the right corner, where he plays for Stoke City in the English Premier League — had left Gonzalez as the odd man out.

Even after Besler hurt himself in the opener, Klinsmann turned to the inexperienced Brooks, his fourth center back. (Brooks and Besler play on the left side of the central formation, Cameron and Gonzalez on the right.)

“He got thrown into the firing line, but he did well, had some good clearances, read the game well,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said of Gonzalez. “It was just about managing it.”

In the home friendlies before arriving in Brazil, the Dallas native played just 55 total minutes and did not start. He got his first taste of the World Cup in Game 2, entering in the dying moments of a 2-2 draw with Portugal.

“Not playing much in any of the lead-in games and being on the bench for the first two [World Cup] games, obviously you can get down on yourself,” he said. “The good thing is that I have good people around me who help me stay positive. My main thing this whole time has been to be a good teammate — take the focus away from myself.”

Back in Maryland, upon hearing Gonzalez was in the lineup, Cirovski was nervous for his former player. “In those [rainy] conditions and against Germany? It’s a difficult situation,” Cirovski said.

Zusi did not gain his first starting assignment until the second game but had already made an impact. Nine minutes after entering the opener, he served the corner kick that Brooks nodded into the net for a 2-1 triumph.

Zusi regained a starting role when, in the wake of striker Jozy Altidore’s hamstring injury, Klinsmann shifted to a five-man midfield for the final two group matches.

Zusi was a late bloomer on the U.S. scene. Never part of the youth national team set-up and a reserve in his first two seasons with Sporting Kansas City, he has over 31 / 2 seasons become one of MLS’s finest midfielders.

Zusi’s first World Cup experience came at age 7 — he participated in the opening ceremonies at Soldier Field in Chicago. “I think I had a blow-up soccer ball and was running around the field,” he said.

Reflecting on a 20-year World Cup arc, the central Florida native said: “There are times where I can’t believe I am here. To see that work pay off feels really good.”

After matches, Cirovski makes sure to text his former players.

“I just told them I am incredibly proud of them and excited for them,” he said. “We’re watching them, we’re supporting them and we’re hoping they stay in Brazil for a little bit longer.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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