72114_isi_zusigraham_usmntjt061614370 John Todd/isiphotos.com
On the Record

Here's What People Are Saying About... Graham Zusi

The 27-year-old Sporting Kansas City midfielder made his World Cup debut this year, logging two assists and helping the U.S. advance out of Group G in Brazil. Laura Greene kept tabs on the buzz surrounding Zusi.
BY Laura Greene Posted
July 21, 2014
10:44 AM
IT TOOK LESS THAN 10 MINUTES for Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi to make a mark on the World Cup in Brazil.

On as a substitute, his corner provided the assist for John Brooks’ game-winning goal, as the U.S. defeated Ghana in Natal on June 16.

Six days later, the Sporting Kansas City midfielder was at it again—this time against Portugal—logging an assist for Clint Dempsey as Jurgen Klinsmann’s men drew 2-2 at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus.

Although we saw a more subdued Zusi in his following two games, against eventual winners Germany and quarterfinalists Belgium, there can be no argument that the 27-year-old played an instrumental role in helping the U.S. march out of Group G and into the Round of 16.

But how was the Florida native received by audiences watching at home? Were people talking about more than (it did become a big topic…) his hair? Seen by many as a defining point in engaging soccer fans across the United States, the tournament was watched by record-breaking numbers of viewers. Here, in On The Record, we take a look at what some of them were saying about the USA’s No. 19.

But first let’s go back to see how Zusi first made it out of obscurity and onto the biggest stage in the world game.

Voted as Major League Soccer’s Breakout Player of the Year in 2011, Zusi’s five goals and seven assists cemented his place as a regular starter in the Sporting Kansas City lineup.

He told MLSsoccer.com at the time, “After last year, I looked at where I was and, to be honest, I wasn’t satisfied whatsoever. I’m not satisfied being a substitute player in this league. My goal was to become a starter and make a name for myself.”

Rewarded for his efforts with an invitation to join the United States men’s national team camp in January 2012, ahead of friendlies against Venezuela and Panama, he played against both and scored the only goal of the game against the latter. Offered a new four-year contract one month later, it’s fair to say that Zusi’s name was well on its way to being “made.”

As Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes told The Kansas City Star, “We consider him part of the core group of guys we’ll be counting on for years to come.” At the end of 2012, Zusi sat atop the league’s charts with 15 assists in 31 starts. He could also boast four more international caps to his name and a place on that season’s MLS All-Star team.

The set-piece specialist returned to Sporting Park after a trial with Premier League side West Ham in January 2013, and promptly followed up the successes of his 2012 MLS season with six goals and eight assists—not to mention 12 appearances for the U.S. as both a starter and a sub in World Cup qualification.

After facing Sporting KC in MLS, Landon Donovan was asked if Zusi was the heir apparent to his crown in the national team. On April 21, 2013, the United States’ all-time top goalscorer told lagalaxy.com:

“I think Graham has been terrific. Aside from the on-the-field stuff, I think that he’s handled everything really well. I know that he gets asked a lot about all this stuff [pressure] and I said to him after the game that he’s doing a great job of handling it. You could tell tonight that he wasn't completely on his game, but he has moments where he has something special.

“I think that he’s done a great job, he’s someone that deserves to be where he’s at, and I look forward to continuing to battle back and forth with him and continue to push each other.”

On the Bigsoccer.com forums, KC96 wrote on June 8, 2013: “Zusi is what he is. Technically solid, great dead ball skills, power shot (when he chooses to take one), works hard, crosses well, plays defense well for his position and has good soccer IQ. What he is not is 1v1 deadly, or fast enough to blow by people.

“Zusi is also 26 and will be almost 28 at the end of WC 2014, so this is pretty much his time to shine internationally. He will likely not accomplish in his career what Donovan already did by age 20, but Zusi is not Donovan, and he recognizes that. Zusi press quote: "Donovan's shoes are not mine to fill."

However, Zusi had become an important player during U.S. World Cup qualification and four months later, after coming on as a substitute for Donovan, he notched a goal against Jamaica. He followes this up with a game-tying headed goal against Panama on October 15, which earned him cult hero status in Mexico. With Panama crashing out, the 2-2 draw handed El Tri one last chance to qualify for Brazil 2014, in a playoff with New Zealand that the Mexicans eventually won.

In December 2013, Zusi became lifted the MLS Cup after a penalty shootout battle of epic proportions against Real Salt Lake, was named to the MLS Best XI for the second consecutive season, and was named Sporting Kansas City’s MVP.

In early May 2014, Klinsmann named his preliminary 30-man roster for Brazil and pre-World Cup training camp. Most of the talk was centered on Julian Green’s inclusion and Eddie Johnson’s exclusion. The focus on Zusi was positive, relatively quiet, and it seemed like a given that he would be involved.

As Dan O'Pids wrote on MLSoccer.com on May 12, “I'd like to see Wondo in Brazil. Guys like him and Zusi help maintain the feeling that something good could happen at any moment, regardless of how late in the game it is—as long as you're not down by more than two.” Peter Elliott added, “As a Kansas-Citian, it is absolutely fantastic to see no discussion about whether Zusi and Bes should be in this roster. This little, 'dinky' plains town is representing the country down in Brazil. #blessed” Klinsmann named his final 23-man World Cup squad on May 22. Immediately thereafter podcasts, online discussions, and column inches focused on one player who hadn't made the cut: Landon Donovan.

On June 5, Vermes reacted to Zusi’s place in Klinsmann’s plans, telling USA Today, “He is the hardest working guy in training every day. With that persistence, that work ethic, you just knew it was going to come together eventually. You can only keep someone like that down for so long when they have so much to give, and that guy gets better every day.”

Ahead of the United States' opener against Ghana, Zusi spoke with the assembled media in Brazil, saying: “This is obviously a position I’ve never been in. It’s a different level than anything than I’ve played in front of before. And I’m excited for it. I think this is what every player plays for. And I couldn’t be more excited.

“I’ve put an extremely huge amount of work into this. There’s times where I can’t believe that I am here, but on the other hand to see that work pay off feels really good.”

Three days later the U.S. kicked off its tournament against Kwesi Appiah’s Black Stars. On the pitch for just 13 minutes, Zusi’s crucial assist for Brooks in the 86th minute saw Klinsmann’s side win 2-1. The praise for Zusi, among others, was effusive.

And of course, this:

On June 22, the U.S. took on Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Early feedback suggested that Zusi was struggling against Paulo Bento’s side.

Until he bagged another assist, that is.

And then, you guessed it, the hair became part of the conversation:

In stoppage time, Omar Gonzalez came on toreplace Zusi as the U.S. looked to safeguard its lead with a shored-up defence. Yet in the dying minutes of the game, Portugal equalized and leveled the score at 2-2.

Zusi started and played 84 minutes in the U.S.'s 1-0 defeat to Germany on June 26, coming off for DeAndre Yedlin in the 84th minute. The narrow loss, combined with Portugal's victory over Ghana, saw the U.S. advance to the knockout rounds.

As the showdown with Group H winners Belgium approached, Klinsmann had this to say about Zusi: “He's in the inner circle now. He has stepped it up, gained confidence and that's great to see.”

The Sporting KC man saw 72 minutes of action in the U.S.’ 2-1 second-round defeat at the hands of Belgium and, despite struggling against a side widely tipped as tournament dark horses, it seemed that Zusi’s detractors were out in force.

As Packer commented on American Soccer Now, “Zusi was one of several real disappointments for me. I think he's a really good player capable of taking it to international competition, but outside of two really good assists (which definitely count for something), his touch was off. If he and Bradley had had their "normal" touch in this World Cup, things could have turned out differently.”

With GodsHolyTrousers typing, “Zusi has two assists and a high work rate. That has to count for something. On the other hand, he was gassed after the Germany game, and we need a bigger rotation of players to be successful in the later rounds of a tournament of this quality.”

Winning the MLS Cup last year and playing through the “Group of Death” and into the World Cup second round this year, there is no question that Zusi’s career is on an exciting trajectory.

Also, he will continue playing in the United States for the foreseeable future. Amid rumours that MLS might lose him to a European suitor, Zusi has put pen to paper on a new contract with Sporting Kansas City. As he told The Kansas City Star on July 19, “It was an easy decision for me. The vision and direction of this club is something I want to be a part of for a long time.”

Onward and upward for the MLS and for Zusi, whose decision to stay is great news for Sporting Kansas City fans.

There’s just one thing to add, ladies and gentlemen: It appears that Graham Zusi has cut his hair.

What do you think about Graham Zusi's ascension into the U.S. national team, his World Cup showing, and his decision to re-sign with Sporting Kansas City? The Comments section is yours.

Laura Greeneis a frequent ASN contributor. If you'd like to see a particular U.S. player receive the On the Record treatment, tell us below.

Post a comment