The ball rested 25 yards from the south goal at Children’s Mercy Park, so naturally, Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer stood over it.
Each of them prepared to foster an argument for taking the Sporting Kansas City free kick before an interruption.
It came from Graham Zusi.
“He pushed us off the ball and said he was going to take it,” Feilhaber said. “And I think both of us felt the confidence he had, so we let him have it.”
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The bender drilled the crossbar, inches from Zusi scoring a goal, but the outcome wasn’t the purpose of the story.
Across the locker room after Sporting Kansas City’s 3-2 victory against Columbus last weekend, Zusi’s teammates described his outing as his best in 2016. His coach called him the man of the match.
Put more simply: “I think you just saw Graham Zusi,” coach Peter Vermes said. “That’s the guy I know.”
It hasn’t been the guy Sporting Kansas City has seen for extended stretches over the past 18 months. And perhaps with valid reasoning. Zusi battled four injuries last season. A foot injury caused him to try more than a dozen different models of boots in search of easing the pain while he continued to play.
After the season, Vermes called United States men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and requested he not take Zusi into the Americans’ annual January training camp.
“If you allow him to (skip) that, he’s not only going to be good with us, he’s going to be good with you,” Vermes offered.
After Klinsmann obliged, Vermes told reporters in March to expect a big season from Zusi, a return to his MLS All-Star years. That didn’t materialize over the first half of the season. On a team that struggled to score goals for a two-month stretch, Vermes believed Zusi got caught trying to stretch beyond his means.
On Sunday, Zusi found his vintage form. He was aggressive. He was fearless.
He scored, too. For the first time this season, Zusi found the back of the net, and he did the heavy lifting, making a 35-yard run with the ball at his feet before blasting a left-footed strike just inside the post.
“The thing that stands out to me about that play is not necessarily the shot but the way that he drove in there,” Feilhaber said. “He wanted to make something happen.
“He played really well for us. We need that from him.”
It followed an impressive stint with the U.S. men’s national team at Copa America, during which Zusi scored once off the bench. And the order of events is likely no coincidence. Zusi is a near-lock to deflect questions that require analysis of his own play, but when asked if his confidence received a jolt from his time with the national team, he responded, “Yeah, it certainly can.”
The next question: Will it last?
Sporting KC, 7-8-4, is in the thick of a playoff race in the Western Conference. It plays host to the top team from the East, New York City FC, at 7 p.m. Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park.
The club reaches a different capability with Zusi playing at the top of his game. It doesn’t require a deep delving into analytics to figure that out.
In 2012, Zusi recorded five goals and 15 assists, and Sporting KC finished first in its conference. In 2013, he had six goals and eight assists, and Sporting KC won the MLS Cup Final. The point totals have dipped in three straight seasons, and so has Sporting KC’s place in the standings.
Is it that simple? Perhaps.
Vermes describes Zusi as a player “who can change the game on his own,” but he also stressed the need for Zusi to play within his role.
He played a significant role last week. Another match awaits Sunday.
“We’ve had peaks and valleys this year,” Zusi said. “What we’ve been preaching lately is consistency.”