Graham Zusi is positioned as a virtual lock to make the U.S. men’s national team roster for the World Cup next summer.
A few hurdles remain.
The U.S., which sits alone in first place more than halfway through the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, still needs to make the 32-team field.
But at this moment, it would be an epic shock if Sporting Kansas City’s star playmaking midfielder/winger isn’t wrapped in an American flag next summer in Brazil.
“If he’s healthy and he’s playing anywhere close to this form, I think he should be in Brazil,” said Maryland men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski, who coached Graham for four years with the Terrapins.
No wonder Sporting KC opted to extend Zusi’s contract three more years, an announcement the club made Friday.
Zusi, 26, had inked a new three-year deal prior to the 2012 season, but he already (and eagerly) signed on for another three years, effectively keeping him under Sporting KC’s control through the 2017 season.
“Graham’s been performing well, not just here but on an international level, and we’d like to keep him here long term,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “There’s no doubt he’s a franchise player for us.”
Few would have predicted the rocket-like trajectory of Zusi’s career before midseason 2011 when he returned to Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, where three years earlier he scored the game-winning goals in the semifinal and championship games in leading Maryland to the 2008 NCAA title.
It was at Pizza Hut Park once again where Zusi, who was selected 23rd in the second round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, had his professional coming-out party June 12, 2011, during a 4-1 win for Sporting KC against FC Dallas.
Zusi hammered home two goals and added an assist in that game, which served as a dramatic turning point in his career and Sporting KC’s season as Vermes’ club — 2-6-4 at the time — rallied to win the first of what would be back-to-back Eastern Conference regular-season championships during the final four months of the season.
Zusi, who also played for the Terps’ 2005 national championship team, went on to win the MLS Breakout Player of the Year award that season.
Last season, Zusi, who had a trial at West Ham United of the English Premier League in January, led MLS with 15 assists, was selected to the MLS All-Star team for the first time and was a finalist for MLS MVP award.
During the last 18 months, Zusi, who is now a finalist for the Best MLS Player ESPY (hint: voting continues online through July 17), also managed to establish himself as an indispensable player for the U.S. men.
“Graham always played at a high level, even when he was little,” Zusi’s father, David, said. “He usually played up one or two years on teams, but to realistically think that 20 years would go by and he’d be where he is now — we didn’t really expect it.”
Still, the national narrative that Graham came from nowhere to become one of the best players in the U.S. and arguably the world, isn’t entirely accurate either.
“It’s always discussed as a ‘where did he come from’ and ‘who would have thought’ kind of thing, but anybody who has followed Graham and all the people locally who watched him throughout his youth and college careers aren’t surprised,” David said. “They all think it’s more of a ‘Finally, he’s gotten what he deserves’ type thing.”
Of course, Graham would dispute that. He’s as unassuming and humble away from the field as his crosses into the penalty box are spectacular.
For Graham, his ascendance is the product of hard work, a little luck and making the most of his opportunities.
“I’m certainly overjoyed with all he’s achieved, but so much of success in sports is timing and being in the right place and having the right mentor, all that kind of stuff,” David said. “There’s a ton of great players who never get the opportunities Graham’s had, because they weren’t in the right place at the right time or didn’t have the right players around them.”
From that perspective, Graham has been extremely fortunate.
David served as his youth coach for several years before handing off that duty to Scott Betsinger.
“My club coach (Betsinger) let me find the joy of the game,” Graham said. “It was just so much fun playing club with those guys.”
Moving into the high school ranks at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla., roughly 13 miles north of Orlando, Graham came under the tutelage of Danny Kirby.
“My high school coach really built the relationships of the players,” Graham said. “We were an extremely tight-knit group. It was really easy to play for each other and the coach.”
Next came Cirovski.
“He was a tough guy, and he demanded things out of us,” Graham said. “That’s where I learned a lot of the discipline aspects of the game, and life really as well.”
Now, of course, Graham has flourished under Vermes and Sporting KC’s technical staff.
“I knew (Graham) was capable of great things, but he needed to get into a place where there was going to be some patience and where he could become comfortable and confident,” Cirovski said. “At Maryland, he got better every year to the point where, as a senior, he was one of the top players in the nation.
“Peter Vermes and the Sporting Kansas City staff have done a great job of showing faith in Graham and developing his confidence as he finds his place. That’s why I’m delighted he has decided to stay with Sporting Kansas City.”
His development on Vermes’ watch is one of the main reasons Graham opted to re-up with Sporting KC rather than chase dollars or prestige playing time in Europe.
“I’m not going to go there just to say I’m playing in Europe,” Graham said. “I want to be in a spot where I’m getting the best training and best competition that I can play at. I’m not going to go to a league just because of the name of the league. I want to be getting the consistent competition, the highest level competition that I can, and now for me that’s right here.”
Of course, there is one point to clear up: 2014 — and it’s going to happen barring injury — won’t be the first time Graham has performed at the World Cup.
“When the World Cup was in the United States and there were some games in Orlando, (7-year-old) Graham was in the opening ceremony along with his brother and me,” David said. “We trained for weekend after weekend at the soccer complex where he played with people on scaffolding directing everyone’s movements and telling people where to go.”
Of course, actually playing in the World Cup might be a little different experience — and doing so representing Sporting KC.