Despite his preference to avoid it, the spotlight has found Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi all year.
Zusi, an all-star midfielder, is not a guy who seeks attention and, truth be told, isn’t particularly comfortable with it either, but he’s been forced to endure it as part of his rapid rise to stardom.
“I don’t think it’s in his nature to be comfortable in the spotlight,” said starting right back Chance Myers, one of Zusi’s best friends on the team. “He’s more comfortable on the field than he is in the limelight. Some guys are just like that, but it’s awesome to see him continue to perform well no matter what’s happening off the field.”
Really, the hullabaloo started last year for Zusi when he finally cracked the starting lineup a few months into the season and went on to be selected as the MLS breakout player of the year.
His impeccable form, including vicious shot from distance and pinpoint accuracy on corner kicks and set pieces, caught the eye of U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who brought Zusi in for the January training camp.
Zusi scored a goal in his second international appearance, a 1-0 win Jan. 25 against Panama, and has continued to impress, earning four more national team call-ups and proving to be an invaluable contributor during the CONCACAF semifinal round of 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Of course, he didn’t let that affect his club performance, leading Sporting KC and the MLS with 15 assists this season and finding his way into MVP discussions.
Were it not for San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski, Zusi might even be the favorite for the award.
“The spotlight on him just drives him to work harder,” Myers said. “He’s a leader in terms of his work ethic and the ability he has to change a game. We follow his lead through his play or when he opens his mouth. He’s got enough respect built up for that.”
It’s impressive for a player who had made nine starts and logged barely 1,000 minutes as a professional since he was drafted out of Maryland with the 23rd overall pick in the second round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.
“It’s weird,” Zusi said. “I’m not going to say I thought I’d be an MVP candidate, but I knew eventually I would get my chance to make an impact for the team. Now that I’m able to, it shows that the hard work is paying off, but I don’t look at it like two years ago I was nothing.
“That’s all just part of your development. There’s not a lot of guys who come into this league and make a huge impact right away. I never doubted my abilities and just kept my head down and progressed as time went along.”
Stepping onto the field provides sanctuary for Zusi, who describes himself as “reserved” and was dubbed “bashful” by teammates.
Soccer has always been that way for him and there’s no trace of timidity after the whistle blows.
“When I’m on the field, it’s where I can, I guess, not let loose, but that’s where I feel the most comfortable to impose myself,” Zusi said. “I just feel at home on the field. I’m not really shy on the field.”
Quite the opposite, he’s a tenacious competitor and the sparkplug for the two-time reigning Eastern Conference regular-season champions.
“He adds something no one else has on our team,” said center back Matt Besler, another of Zusi’s best buds. “He can change the game at any moment. Whether it’s with his set pieces or his long-distance shot or his creative pass, he just does a lot of things that other players on the team don’t have. It’s that creativity factor. Now that he’s got confidence too, he’s just blowing up this year.”
With Sporting KC opening its playoff run at 2:30 p.m. today against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium, Zusi’s almost certainly going to find himself in the limelight a few more times if manager Peter Vermes’ club is going to reach its ultimate goal – winning the MLS Cup.
And that’s a tradeoff that would be totally worth it for Zusi.
“He’s one of those players who loves soccer,” Vermes said. “He loves the game – he eats it, he breathes it, he sleeps it. That’s his world. He’s got so much passion for it, so when he goes on the field that comes out.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.