KANSAS CITY, Mo.-- Just 20 months ago, Graham Zusi was a frustrated reserve player on Sporting Kansas City, about to embark on his third season as a pro, still looking for a breakthrough after two years on the bench. As much as he dreamed about things like the national team and being one of Major League Soccer’s signature stars, Zusi’s goal back then was simply getting on the field.
Zusi remembers those tough early years all too well, which is why he never takes an opportunity for granted, and why he can’t help but chuckle at the notion that his rise to club stardom and national team success happened “quickly”
Some people’s “quickly” actually took more than two years. And that climb to the national team? He spent three years in the pros before that first cap came, and four years in the pros before his first call-up for a World Cup qualifier.
“Someone looking at it from the outside in can think of it as a rapid ascension, but that really is not the case for me,” Zusi told Goal USA. “I look at all those years of work I put into it and I just look at it as that work is starting to pay off. My patience and willingness to keep at it, in my eyes it wasn’t very quick at all. It was many years of that work, and it’s starting to pay off now.”
The years Zusi spent toiling as a Sporting KC reserved have paid off handsomely in the past two years. Along with becoming an MLS all-star, and recipient of a sizable contract, Zusi has jumped into the national team picture with both feet, playing in 12 games for the USA in 2013, an impressive total for a player who only received his first cap in January of 2012.
“I was one of those people watching U.S. games on my couch and I didn’t think I would get that opportunity,” he continued. “That’s always the dream, and you’re pushing for that, but a couple of years ago, where I was, realistically I didn’t have much of a chance.
“It’s really cool for me and maybe for other players in a similar position they can gain some hope from that, realizing that their dream can become a reality as well.”
Along with being a national team regular, Zusi has also had to deal with the recent acclaim he has received as the savior of the Mexican national team.
Not familiar with the story? His goal in the USA’s World Cup qualifier against Panama tied that match and helped eliminate Panama from qualifying, thus opening the door for Mexico to qualify for a World Cup playoff ‘El Tri’ has already won against New Zealand. The goal has earned Zusi hero status in Mexico, as well as some grief from USA fans who were hoping Mexico would miss the 2014 World Cup.
““It’s just kind of funny to me,” Zusi said when asked about his status as hero in Mexico. “Mexico’s easily our biggest rival, so for Mexican fans to be so gracious to an American player is just comical.”
And the unhappy USA fans?
“You’ll get the hardcore U.S. supporters who want nothing more than to not make the World Cup, but you’ve got to just laugh about it,” Zusi said. “It’s not like they’re seriously mad at me or anything, they’re just upset that Mexico is going to the World Cup when they feel like (Mexico) probably didn’t deserve it.”
While Zusi helped Mexico book its ticket to the World Cup, his own ticket is still a work in progress. He is in the thick of a fierce battle for playing time in the USA midfield pool, and while he does appear to be a good bet to make the World Cup team, he knows there is still work to be done.
“You don’t want to think about the World Cup right now, and be thinking that it’s right around the corner, and then not prepare for it,” Zusi said. “In my eyes, there’s still a ton of soccer to be played before that point, and a lot of proving ground for all the players, including myself.
“I’m thinking about it, but only in a way to best prepare myself to be in a spot to make that team. Every chance I’m on the field I’m just trying to get myself better and more prepared.”
Zusi credits Jurgen Klinsmann for showing so much faith in a player with relatively little national team experience. All Zusi has done is start in eight of the team’s past 13 World Cup qualifiers, playing in all but one of them.
“Jurgen is the kind of coach who loves to instill confidence in his players,” Zusi said. “He’s a very positive person when it comes to his players and we feed off that. His coaching style not only helps my confidence, but helps a lot of guys on the team.”
Zusi also sounds ready to heed Klinsmann’s advice in finding a loan opportunity for the winter, to help fill the void left by the MLS off-season. While he could take part in the January U.S. national team camp, Zusi acknowledged he could be heading somewhere on loan this winter.
“I think a loan situation could definitely be a possibility,” he admitted. “Me getting some games and training in the months leading up to the MLS season. It’s a big question mark, I don’t really know because I’ve been focusing on other things. Once the off-season comes around it’s something I’ll look at, but I haven’t yet.”
Zusi can’t think about the off-season just yet. He has some unfinished business to tend to with the Houston Dynamo visiting Sporting Park on Saturday for the second leg of their MLS Eastern Conference Final series. The teams ended up tying 0-0 in the first leg, meaning the winner on Saturday advances to the MLS Cup Final.
Houston has eliminated Sporting KC in each of the past two post-seasons, but Zusi believes Sporting has grown from those experiences, and have the quality to reach the club’s third MLS Cup final, and potentially win the club’s first title since 2000.
It’s good that we’re coming in on level terms,” Zusi said. “Hopefully you’ll see more of soccer game, and more entertaining for the fans. Hopefully they come out and try to play with us. These games are always battles and I expect nothing less this time.
“The past couple of years we’ve learned from those loses to Houston, but we’re a different team now than we were.”
Sporting KC is a different team, and Zusi is a different player. No longer toiling in the shadows, dreaming of the national team, Zusi is squarely in the spotlight, and Saturday will be his latest opportunity to remind us all just how far he has come.