Photo by Bill Barrett/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
If Graham Zusi has taken one lesson away from the first three years of his MLS career, it's been understanding the value of patience.
After being selected by the Kansas City Wizards in the second round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, the attacking midfielder made just nine starts and scored one goal in his first two seasons. But Zusi said he simply kept his head down and continued his hard work, learning whatever he could from veterans such as Jimmy Conrad, Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud, hoping his time would come.
Sure enough, it did. The 25-year-old has been one of the league's top breakout players of 2011 for rebranded Sporting Kansas City, notching five goals and a team-leading six assists while starting 20 of 26 matches.
"It's a very common thing for a young player to come into the league and have to bide his time," Zusi said. "Everyone wants to be on the field. So you can't let it get to you if you're not starting, if you're not getting the chances you might want."
The University of Maryland product has been a technically sound presence in central midfield for coach Peter Vermes' side, and he has also chipped in a highlight-reel goal or two from time to time. In June, a scorching run of form earned him MLS Player of the Month honors.
More recently, Zusi set up a pair of strikes with two exquisite entry passes Saturday as Kansas City improved to 10-8-10 with a 3-0 win over the Houston Dynamo that briefly launched the club atop the Eastern Conference.
"I think the best part is just being able to be on the field as much as I have been this year," he said. "I've found myself getting the consistent starts, which has in turn boosted my confidence all that much more."
Matters, of course, haven't gone so smoothly for Kansas City all season. Faced with a league-record 10-game road trip to the start the year while construction was completed on Livestrong Sporting Park, the club limped to a 1-6-3 mark during that stretch.
Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Zusi only made four starts on that lengthy road swing. Once Kansas City moved into its state-of-the-art venue — which Zusi called "easily the best stadium in MLS" — the team's fortunes turned. A 14-game unbeaten streak promptly played Kansas City back into playoff contention. Starting 12 of those matches, Zusi was a key element of the turnaround.
Between the newfound winning ways and the club's stellar new home, the Sporting Kansas City identity has finally begun to resonate. As Zusi realized, the franchise's rebranding was about more than the new stadium, uniforms and moniker — it was about introducing hoards of fans to the sport by cultivating a thirst for the beautiful game in the Midwest.
"The organization really spent a lot of time and put a lot effort into making this city buy into whatever they were doing," he recalled. "They left no rock unturned and [put in] numerous, numerous hours of putting our name out there for the city to catch onto. You can really see the tides have turned when it comes to support."
Prior to this campaign, the Florida native was best known for his decorated college career at Maryland. Playing as a forward before shifting to a playmaker role his senior season, Zusi tallied 28 career goals and was a part of the Terrapins' 2005 and 2008 NCAA championship squads. He earned College Cup Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors for the latter, scoring consecutive game-winners in the semifinal and final.
Zusi, picked 23rd overall in the 2009 draft, was taken after Maryland teammates Omar Gonzalez, Rodney Wallace, Jeremy Hall and A.J. DeLaGarza. All five players have developed solid MLS careers, and Gonzalez and DeLaGarza (United States), along with Wallace (Costa Rica), have also received their first senior national team call-ups.
Although some have pegged Zusi as a potential prospect for new U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to keep an eye on, the third-year player isn't getting ahead of himself.
"People have brought it up to me in interviews and what not, but it's not something I really think about too much," Zusi said. "Obviously, it's a dream of any young player to one day represent your country. My view is that if the opportunity comes, then it comes. All you can control is how you're playing and preparing for the next game."
So for now, Zusi is focused being a part of the playoffs for the first time with Kansas City, which currently trails Columbus by one point for the Eastern Conference's top seed with six matches to play.
Playing for a team that has only dropped two contests since mid-May, Zusi likes his chances at making that first postseason run a deep one.
"In this league, in the past, the team that is hottest going into the playoffs seems to be the best," Zusi noted. "We're kind of clicking on all cylinders right now, and I think we're going to be a team to reckon with when it comes to the playoffs."