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Kerry Zavagnin One-on-One

U.S. midfielder Kerry Zavagnin was certainly a late bloomer.  After a rough beginning to his professional career in which he went from the MetroStars roster to a minor league team to nearly quitting the game altogether, his rededication to the sport brought him to the pinnacle of any player's career: a place with the U.S. national team.  Getting his first international start just shy of his 30th birthday last year, Zavagnin has demonstrated that perseverance and solid play is still the means to appear on Bruce Arena's radar, no matter what your age.  As the team prepares for the World Cup qualifiers later this month, sat down with Kerry to discuss the team's preparations, his time in England, and his reflections on the path his career has taken. With all the different variables involved in the next month – friendlies, altitude training, and two important qualifiers at the end of it – how do you prepare yourself mentally for the haul?

Kerry Zavagnin: “Usually the lengthy camps take place while we are still in our preseason, so it’s the ultimate preparation for both the MLS and the national team.  I think a good, solid month of training will always prepare you for the task ahead, which is a long season both with the national team and your club team.  You try to tackle it one week at a time.  If you think about the entire month being cooped up in a hotel, it may lead you to go stir crazy.  But I think we have an adequate amount of training as well as rest.  I think the coaches do a good job here of giving us time to get out on our own and spend some time away from the game while at the same time putting us through our paces to get through the year.” You’re in an interesting circumstance with this group, since on one hand you are a veteran in the league, but with the national team you are a relative newcomer.  Especially in the all-MLS camps, do you feel you have a leadership role?

KZ: “I don’t get caught up in the age of the players around me, or my own for that matter.  If you want to be successful, you have to be proactive in the way you go about the game.  I think what I can bring to this team, and to this camp specifically, is vocal leadership on the field and organizing guys around me.  It’s part of the strength in my game.  As far as being the older guy, I never look at it that way.  I try to look at my game and how I can fit that into what we’re trying to do here.” You recently came back from a couple trials with clubs in England.  First of all, what was the impetus for your decision to test the waters overseas?

KZ: I knew that as I was approaching the later stages of my career that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with my contract ending with MLS.  You throw in there the dynamic that I was able to get my Irish citizenship, and I thought it was as good a time as any – and quite frankly, the only opportunity - I would have to play overseas.  Every player’s dream is to play at the highest level possible, and you always try to put yourself in a scenario where you can strive to be the best player you can be.  That was my motivation throughout the whole process.” Tell us about your experience…

KZ: I was trying for months to get my dual citizenship.  It was quite stressful on me trying to get that date pushed ahead so I could have my passport by December or early January when teams were looking for players during the transfer window.  After I completed that, I had a half-opportunity in Sunderland.  They weren’t specifically looking for a player in my position, but the coach wanted to have a look at me, just knowing that I had international experience.  I had a great experience there.  The facilities, the players, the coach – everything was exceptional, and if I was granted an opportunity to play there I would have taken it.  However, the feedback I got was ‘you’re a good player. There’s no question you can play here, but your experience in English soccer is none.’  For a team that is trying to get into the Premiership, that held me back.  I decided to go to a club like Coventry, that is further down the in the table.  With five or six teams interested, I didn’t want to be parading around the country for months on end and not have a team.  I decided after Coventry that I would either stay there or come back home.  At the end of the week in Coventry, the coach wanted me to stay on and had an offer that I was happy with.  Again, the chairman cited my lack of experience in the English game and decided not to offer me a contract.  I probably could have kept on like that for a couple weeks going back and forth with the coach and chairman, but I knew at that stage [at the end of January] that I needed to start playing so I made the decision to come back to MLS.” Overall, what did you take away from the experience?

KZ: “Looking back on it, I think the experience of going there and realizing that I was quite capable of playing in that environment answered some questions I had as a player.  In that regard, I was satisfied.  At the same time, I’ve always wanted to play over there, and it was a little disappointing that the timing wasn’t right.” Now that you’ve settled back in with the Kansas City Wizards, what are your goals with the national team in 2005?

KZ: “When I look back on 2004, I can look at it from a personal view as a successful year.  I was pleased with the way I was able to contribute to the Kansas City Wizards as well as the national team.  I gained valuable experience not only with the friendlies but in the World Cup qualifiers as well.  I’m coming into 2005 almost starting from scratch in that I’m a guy that feels I have to prove myself on a daily basis.  That is the way I’m approaching this camp.  That is the way I’m approaching the coming season.  If I can maintain the form I had in 2004, it’s a level I would be happy with, but I’m always grasping for a little bit more.  I’m trying to surpass what I accomplished in the past.” After being called into camp in December of 2003, you steadily improved your time with the national team. After making appearances against Denmark and Poland in Warsaw, you finally got your first-ever start against Mexico. Describe your experience in Dallas?

KZ: “I had been away from the national teams for a few years.  It was ironic in that my first cap was against Mexico in 2000.  I don’t know if I was prepared at that time to play at the level and pace of the game, and I was a bit overwhelmed.  Just to have the feeling of playing in front of 70,000 fans at the L.A. Coliseum was a bit of a shock to me.  Coming into the Mexico game in Dallas I took on a different approach in that I had experienced so much more as a player that it was easier to step into that kind of role. I’m well aware of the rivalry between the two countries, and it’s always exciting to play in a game like that.” Despite the well-established rivalry, it’s still difficult at times for people to appreciate what it’s like to play against Mexico...

KZ: “I’ve only had the opportunity to play against them in friendlies, but that word is thrown out the window when you play against Mexico.  It’s a huge affair, and I can only imagine when the games really matter that the stakes are raised that much more and the intensity is pushed up a little bit more.  It’s hard.  It’s a battle. It’s scrapping.  We all know the Mexicans are very technical and they approach the game differently than we do.  We’ve gotten their number the last few times we’ve played them and we’re going to try and continue that.  To be on the field and to realize that every play matters is something special, and it’s something you shoot for as a player.  It’s like no other game I’ve played before.” Bruce Arena and the staff have put together a comprehensive plan to try and prepare for the March 27 game in Mexico City, which includes two weeks of altitude training.  From a psychological perspective, does this type of approach help give the team confidence going into that match?

KZ: “I think there’s a few reasons why we should be confident.  We’ve had success in both the friendlies and the World Cup in the games that really matter.  Obviously if you look at the history we’ve had in Mexico City it is not very good, but over the past few years we’ve played well against them.  That’s one reason.  We’re also preparing ourselves in the best way possible to be successful.  If you continue to do that on a daily basis, you can expect nothing but good things.  We have the players that can go down there and win the game. If we take that approach and combine that with the preparation we’re doing, we can only expect positive results.” We’ve talked in the past about all the difficult times you’ve had in your career, including almost quitting soccer altogether.  Now having reached 30 years of age and achieving most of your success late in your career, what lessons do you take away from the path your life has taken?

“First of all, without the experiences I’ve had – especially the tough times I’ve had in my career– I don’t know if I’d be the player that I am today.  I don’t know if I’d approach the game on a daily basis the way I do if I hadn’t gone through those trials.  It took me a while to develop both as a person and as a player.  Looking back on the tough times I’ve had, not only in New York, but in Raleigh playing with an amateur team and Lehigh Valley going back down to the A-League, it was at that time that I dedicated myself to trying to improve on a daily basis.  It’s easy when you’re with the national team to say that you’re going to try and be the best player you can be.  It’s a little bit more difficult when you have to drive an hour and a half to play on a bumpy field and an environment that’s not totally conducive to becoming a better player.  It’s there you really need to push yourself.  That’s what I’ve taken away from my experiences.  You need to approach the game in a way that you’re always trying to improve.  It’s never too late to get better and better and better.  A lot of players say they want to get better, but there’s a very small percentage that do it on a daily basis.”