When Graham Zusi ran onto the field in the 61st minute of Sporting KC’s match against the Chicago Fire on Sunday at Sporting Park, fans rose to their feet to welcome back their star defender with a loud and familiar chorus.
Zusi and U.S. men’s national squad teammate Matt Besler returned to Kansas City five days after the Americans fell to Belgium in the round of 16, ending Team USA’s World Cup run.
Both were formally welcomed back with a standing ovation by a sold-out crowd before the start of the match. The crowd of 20,858 was Sporting KC’s largest of the year and its 45th straight sellout.
Fans held signs to show their support, one reading “Graham and Matt, we’re proud of you.”
Zusi and Besler helped the national team escape the “Group of Death” — labeled as such for being considered the most difficult group in the group stage. It was a feat not many thought the Americans were capable of before the World Cup.
“(It’s) always a dream of a soccer player to represent his country on the biggest stage and for myself and for Matt it was an amazing experience to represent our country, not only that, but to represent Kansas City,” Zusi said.
While Besler said he hasn’t had time to think back on the experience and let it sink in — interviews with CBS, ESPN and “Good Morning America” have kept him busy since his return — he said he enjoyed every second of his time in Brazil.
“It was the ride of a lifetime,” Besler said. “There were so many ups and downs throughout the process but as a team we created memories that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
Besler was not made available for the match because he felt like he needed a couple more days to rest, according to technical director Peter Vermes. But he said he was excited to be back in Kansas City and to bring back some of the things they learned to their Sporting teammates.
What they brought to Kansas City was certainly special. For 2 1/2 weeks, soccer fever hit the city as more than 10,000 fans packed the Power & Light District for each of the four U.S. games, enticing crews from ESPN to feature the madness.
“It seemed like every TV outlet used Kansas City as an example to show what kind of support the country had,” Zusi said. “It was cool to see Power & Light absolutely packed.”
Zusi played an integral part in the group stage, providing two assists in the first two matches. His first came on a corner kick that allowed John Brooks to score the game winning goal against Ghana and his second, a pass to Clint Dempsey, led to USA’s second goal in a 2-2 draw against Portugal.
Zusi said it felt good to be back with his Sporting teammates, who were also happy to have both him and Besler back.
“It’s going to help us,” Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer said. “Obviously they’ve played in a World Cup so they’ve got even more experience.”