The Summer of Zusi is upon us, and it’s already been quite a ride for Sporting Kansas City’s best player. He’s been playing with the US Men’s National team, winner of nine straight games. He was named an MLS All-Star for the game at his home stadium next week, signed a contract extension with Sporting, was nominated for the ESPY for best MLS player, and a few weeks ago won the league’s “goal of the week” award for this ridiculous and perfectly placed curveball.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
And we haven’t even mentioned the best part: he’s the second participant in the DKTM Occasional Interview.
Just don’t get a big head about this, Graham. Here we go:
• Favorite food: I’ll just go with the classic, steak. At the Chaz.
• Favorite drink: I’m a big water drinker. I drink water almost always.
• Favorite band: I am pretty big into the Black Keys^ right now. I was planning on going (when they played at the Sprint Center in April) but I had to go out of town for something kind of last minute. I’m really into Little Black Submarines.
^ Veteran move here by Zusi, clearly a regular reader of the blog.
• Favorite sports memory: I have a few that are all sort of tied. One is winning the national championship in college. Another is winning the US Open Cup with Kansas City. And another is playing for the National Team, winning down in Azteca Stadium in Mexico.
• Did anything surprise you about the USMNT experience? I’m sure you had some thoughts what it would be like, anything surprise you good or bad?
The whole national team picture, and getting to the national team, it’s always been a goal, ever since I was very young. You’re always working towards it. But once it actually happened, that alone was pretty surprising to me, the realization I had reached that goal was pretty surprising and pretty surreal
• You’ve been called a breakout star, but that’s probably not fair. I feel like when people say that, it ignores a long period of hard work that led into it. But do you have a thought about why it seemed to happen so fast?
That’s always been my answer, it wasn’t a breakout, as far as I’m concerned it’s been 22 years of work put into this game to get me to that level. In my eyes, it hasn’t happened so quickly. But I know from the outside looking in, that rise did happen fairly quickly. So I understand why others think that. But I guess I credit it to more consistent time on the field. Two years ago was the first time I was seeing multiple games in a row of being in the starting lineup, and luckily I was able to grasp that moment. My confidence has really been on the rise, and I’ve been able to take the chances that were given to me.
• You talk about that 22 years of work. Was there a point in that time that you thought of soccer as more than something you liked to do, but something you might have a career in?
I played several different sports growing up. I was pretty big into lacrosse. Played tennis, basketball, baseball. Soccer was always the one that took precedent. I wouldn’t mind missing a lacrosse tournament, or a basketball game, but I wouldn’t miss a soccer game. I think around high school is when I narrowed it down to soccer. I liked it the best, and it was my best sport as well. Then in college is when I really focused in and thought, well, maybe I can take this to the next level. I’d be lying if I said I already knew I’d be playing professional soccer, because I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I had what it took. I was always working toward it, but it wasn’t until my senior year (at Maryland) I realized it was an attainable goal.
• I read an article where you called this the biggest year of your life. That struck me. Can you explain that? Are you training differently? What’s it like to be in this moment, feeling like this will impact the rest of your career?
I was saying that in the context of the World Cup. That’s the ultimate goal for any soccer player, to one day represent your country in the World Cup. It doesn’t really matter what I did last year or the year before. This year is, really, the year that will determine whether I can make that squad or not. And that’s not just me, that’s any player who wants to make that team. If you’re not in form leading up to that tournament, you can very quickly be on the outside looking in.
• When you came up with the Wizards – and it was the Wizards then — you were playing games in that minor league ballpark. The pitchers’ mound is in the field, all these things, now that you’re removed from it what was the hardest part?
That’s all I knew. I came into the league with that, and that was the professional atmosphere for me. Now looking where we are now, I can really appreciate what our organization has done for this team in the recent years. The transformation is really incredible. The effort they made to turn this franchise around is really incredible. I can appreciate it more because I’ve been in both settings. It’s really neat to see, actually.
• You have a degree in criminology. You don’t have to worry about this, obviously, but what do you think you’d be doing if soccer wasn’t your job?
I went to school at Maryland, so being around the D.C. area, the government agencies, I mean, one of my teachers was an ex-head of the Secret Service. A couple others were in the FBI. I was able to get a glimpse of their life in those agencies. One of my classes was on counter terrorism. The professor was incredible, he was an ex head of the Secret Service. I was really intrigued by that class. I think maybe if I wasn’t in soccer I’d be pursuing something in one of those agencies, maybe the CIA or something. It was really interesting.
• Last thing: can you give me something embarrassing about one of your teammates? Like, is somebody a big Taylor Swift fan or something?
I know that Soony Saad has two cats who he’s named Simba and Mufasa, obviously after the Lion King. And, well, I’ve seen this. He can recite, pretty much, every line of almost any Disney movie you can think of. And he’s pretty proud of this.