KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jurgen Klinsmann knew that Graham Zusi wanted to play for the United States in front of his fans, so he told the Sporting Kansas City midfielder at halftime to be ready to enter the fray.
It turned out that Klinsmann also needed a spark after a lackluster half against Jamaica.
Zusi provided it when he entered the game to a roar from the sellout crowd at Sporting Park on Friday night, and quickly scored the first goal in what would eventually be a 2-0 victory that clinched first place for the Americans in their World Cup qualifying group for the third straight cycle.
“I told Graham, you know, `Be ready at halftime. You’re going to play in your home stadium. Don’t worry too much about it,”’ Klinsmann said. “And he was part of creating more energy, creating more chances, and scoring that goal will be a special memory for him, absolutely.”
Jozy Altidore followed Zusi’s 77th-minute goal with his own just four minutes later, sealing the Americans’ fifth straight shutout victory on home soil in World Cup qualifying.
“You always want to be on the field,” Zusi said. “When I learned I was going to come out in the second half, I was pretty excited to get in there and try to make a stamp on the game.”
Klinsmann said his decision to substitute Zusi for Landon Donovan was “performance-based.”
“We spoke right after the game, and I said it was simply because we wanted to make a change,” Klinsmann said of his conversation with Donovan, “and you weren’t getting into that game the way you hoped to. And anybody can have a bad game. Other guys had bad games, too.”
The U.S. (6-2-1), which clinched its seventh straight World Cup berth last month, has 19 points in North and Central American and Caribbean qualifying and a four-point lead over second-place Costa Rica (4-2-3), which lost 1-0 at third-place Honduras (4-3-2).
Jamaica (0-5-4), whose only World Cup appearance was in 1998, was eliminated.
“I told my players that the first 60 minutes, 65 minutes we were fantastic,” Jamaica coach Winfried Schaefer said. “We just couldn’t score a goal.”
Demar Phillips sent a free kick toward the goal that Howard got his mitts on, and Brad Evans managed to clear it just before Darren Mattocks could get his foot on it in front of an open goal.
Jamaica had precious few decent scoring looks the rest of the night.
Meanwhile, Zusi entered the game for Donovan and finally ignited the U.S. attack. He got behind the defense and picked up a crossing pass from Alejandro Bedoya, knocking the shot from about 12 yards past goalkeeper DuWayne Kerr and generating a roar from the crowd of 18,467.
Fans packed into Sporting Park had barely settled back down before Edgar Castillo, like Zusi a second-half substitute, found Altidore in front of an open net for another goal in the 81st minute.
Altidore scored for his sixth straight international start.
“We relied on Jozy to stay in the game. He kept fighting in there,” Klinsmann said. “You have to realize when you have Jozy on the field, opponents triple him. There’s a lot of respect for Jozy.”
The U.S. won despite missing several key players due to injuries. Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson were unavailable, Omar Gonzalez sustained a hip strain just before he was due to join the national team, and forward Eddie Johnson strained his left groin in training Wednesday.
DaMarcus Beasley left the game with what Klinsmann called a hamstring injury, and his status for Tuesday’s game against Panama to wrap up World Cup qualifying is in question.
All the ailments gave Klinsmann a chance to give several younger players a look, including Aron Johannsson, who played for Iceland’s under-21 team and made his U.S. debut in August.
“I was excited to get my first start, really excited,” he said. “I was trying to calm down and get the ball, but things didn’t really work out today. Maybe I should have scored one or two goals.”
Evans was back after missing the Mexico match with a strained calf muscle, and Altidore, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron were back after serving suspensions for yellow-card accumulation.
It was Besler, another Sporting KC star, who was the first to reach Zusi after his goal. The two MLS teammates celebrated before a hometown crowd as the rest of the U.S. team joined in.
“It was one of my harder sprints of the game when I sprinted up to him and celebrated with him,” Besler said, “but Graham played a great match today and I’m very happy for him.”
NOTES: The U.S. finished 8-0 in home qualifiers this cycle, outscoring opponents 8-0 on American soil in the hexagonal. The Americans are 25-0-2 in home qualifiers since a 2001 loss to Honduras. … The U.S. announced it will play an exhibition at Austria on Nov. 19, four days after its game at Scotland. … Jamaica finishes its World Cup qualifying schedule Tuesday against Honduras.