Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
At approximately 11:21pm ET last Tuesday, Graham Zusi scored the game-tying goal for the U.S. Men’s National Team with a powerful header that immediately dashed Panama’s World Cup hopes.
Within seconds, as the news spread to Costa Rica, Zusi became arguably the favorite player of fans of the Mexican National Team, saving El Tri from an embarrassing elimination after a difficult year of Hexagonal qualifying.
Since scoring the goal on the way to an eventual 3-2 victory for the USMNT over Panama, Zusi has been painted as a hero in Mexico, who are now through to the playoffs where they will face New Zealand in a home-and-home series in November.
“We learned after the game in the locker room what had gone down,” Zusi told SBI on a conference call. “I’ve gotten probably hundreds of nice messages from Mexican supporters through Twitter. It’s pretty funny how this has all panned out.”
While Zusi may see the lighter side of the reaction in Mexico, the reaction in Estadio Rommel Fernandez was quite the opposite. After scoring in the 85th minute to take a 2-1 lead, Panama looked set to usurp Mexico’s place in the table, but Zusi’s stoppage-time goal followed by Aron Johannsson’s winner 60 seconds later provided a 180 degree flip in the emotions of Panama City.
“As soon as that ball went in, the stadium went absolutely quiet and it was kind of an eerie feeling,” Zusi said. “You could see on the players faces and the fact that you could hear a pin drop in the stadium that Panama’s hopes were pretty much diminished.”
The Sporting Kansas City star has proven to be one of the many success stories within the USMNT narrative over the past 12 months, going from a player who wasn’t even in the conversation within the national team to someone who is fully entrenched in the squad.
After losing his place in the starting lineup in September and last Friday against Jamaica, Zusi has hit back with two goals in his past two games as the USA finished the Hexagonal with 22 points.
“I feel good about the way I’m playing,” Zusi said. “These goals have certainly done quite a bit for my confidence and I really hope that I can continue the form that I’m in and help propel me to new levels as well. I think soccer is a lot about confidence and getting two goals in the past two games certainly does wonders for me.”
The 27-year-old revealed after the win against Jamaica that scoring in his home stadium of Sporting Park and celebrating with his club and international teammate Matt Besler was a special memory. But Zusi’s goal against Panama is being treated differently, even from fans back in the United States, who may have wanted to see Mexico eliminated from World Cup qualification.
“A lot of people (in the U.S.) have been saying ‘why were you guys pushing so hard to get an equalizer and then a winner’,” Zusi said. “No where in our minds were we thinking about other teams in the hex and what the circumstances for them to get through were. We were out there last night to get a result, to get a win, and we were going do whatever it took to do that.
“We found ourselves down late against Panama and I thought we showed quite a bit of character to get ourselves back in that match.”
It’s not every day though that a goal Zusi scores save’s a nation’s World Cup hopes. To him, the entire reaction has been surreal, especially considering the rivalry that he’s seen first hand in two games played at Estadio Azteca.
“I was able to see the broadcast of the Mexican announcers and the way that they celebrated that goal, it gave me chills,” said Zusi. “To see the reaction from them of an American goal and for them to celebrate it like it’s one of their own, it was a pretty special feeling and it made me feel good.”
With his focus now back on his club side, Zusi is preparing to lead Sporting KC to the MLS Cup final. Last season, the team disappointing with a loss in the quarterfinals to the Houston Dynamo, despite being the top team in the Eastern Conference.
Zusi confirmed that if Sporting KC are still in the playoffs next month, he won’t join the U.S. Men’s National Team in Europe for two friendly matches, despite MLS giving the time off for the FIFA dates. However, Zusi believes that despite his good run of form for the national team, there’s still plenty of work he has to do before next May when USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will announce the World Cup roster.
“The coaching staff has made it quite clear that a lot can change between now and then and if we’re not careful and we’re not working day in and day out to get to that level, we’re going to be on the outside looking in,” Zusi said.
“I personally don’t really like to look that far ahead and as far as I’m concerned, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”