Countdown to First Kick: 12 Zusi takes next step

As First Kick, presented by Dick's Sporting Goods approaches, MLSsoccer.com is marking each passing day with a different statistic, observation or talking point, setting the stage for the beginning of the 2012 MLS campaign. Be sure to check out all of the previous days here.

12 –  Combined goals and assists by Graham Zusi in 2011

So long relative anonymity; Graham Zusi better be ready for life as a marked man.

That’s just the way it goes when you enjoy the kind of season the Sporting KC midfielder put together in 2011. Zusi went from bench player to Breakout Player of the Year as he took MLS by storm a year ago, using a blend of athleticism, field vision and ball-striking ability to help propel Sporting from the bottom of the Eastern Conference table to the top, before falling a game short of the MLS Cup final.

WATCH: Zusi launches a rocket into top corner

READ: Zusi the Breakout Player of the Year

And like the Houston Dynamo, who made it clear the former Maryland man was of primary concern ahead of the 2011 Eastern Conference Championship, Sporting’s opponents this season are likely to place extra emphasis on slowing down Zusi in the hopes of negating Kansas City’s attacking impetus.

How Zusi handles that attention will go a long way toward indicating whether he is ready to take on the burden that has been placed on his shoulders this offseason, as Jurgen Klinsmann gave him his first caps for the US national team and SKC rewarded his efforts with a reworked contract.

Unfortunately for the rest of the Eastern Conference, all indications point to Zusi handling that responsibility and building on the five-goal, seven-assist season he turned in during his third professional season.

Although he was played on the wing with the US – his natural position is in the middle of the park – he showed flashes of quality, scoring his first international goal and impressing Klinsmann with his fitness and work ethic after spending the offseason in Kansas City making sure his body was in peak condition.

On the domestic front, word out of Sporting’s preseason camp is that Zusi’s offseason activities have certainly carried over to his club commitments, with some going so far as to call him the best player on the squad without a doubt.

If that’s the case, opposing defenses have cause for concern as one of the league’s brightest emerging talents prepares to take the next step in his rapid development.

Sporting KC open their 2011 home slate against the New England Revolution at Livestrong Sporting Park on March 17.  GET TICKETS!

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WATCH: Zusi named 2011 Breakout Player of the Year