Back with Sporting Kansas City, Graham Zusi taking newfound international stardom in stride

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Graham Zusi is taking his newfound international celebrity – and his national-hero status south of the border – with a shrug and a chuckle.

“It's been funny to me,” the Sporting Kansas City and US national team midfielder said Thursday, during his club's weekly news conference. “I've gotten thousands of little messages from Mexican supporters via Twitter, and most of them I can't understand because they're in Spanish. For us being bitter rivals, for them to love us so much at this moment, it's a little strange.”

Zusi earned Mexico's gratitude with a stoppage-time equalizer – his first headed goal as a professional – on the way to the United States' 3-2 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama on Tuesday. The result coat-tailed El Tri into fourth place in the Hex and a two-leg play-in with New Zealand for a trip to Brazil next year.

But while acknowledging the importance of the goal – his second in as many matches for his country – he's now focused on the end of Sporting's regular season and their final match in CONCACAF Champions League group play.

“We're looking to go into the playoffs on a high note,” he said. “Typically teams who bring a lot of momentum into the playoffs do well, so I'd like to get a couple of wins here, make a strong statement for the Supporters’ Shield and then make that deep run as well.”

And those two goals – which includes the game-winner in last Friday's 2-0 victory over Jamaica at Sporting Park, after he came on as a halftime sub – have given Zusi a good deal of personal momentum.

“I'm playing with a lot of confidence right now,” he said. “It's always good to be scoring goals, so hopefully I can do whatever I can to help the team get wins.”

Zusi, who took a regeneration day on Thursday after arriving back in Kansas City the night before, said he'll be ready to go if he's needed against last-place D.C. United on Friday (8 pm ET; NBCSN).

“I actually feel pretty good,” he said. “The body responded well from Tuesday night. I don't know what the lineup will be on Friday night, but I hope to play a role in it. The body feels fine, no problems there. All over the world, players are playing a heavy schedule, so it's really no different here. It's our job to come back and be ready for the next one. That's what I've done.”

Speaking later in the news conference, Sporting manager Peter Vermes said Zusi will be in the squad but won't start.

“The guy just came off a long trip, 90 minutes,” Vermes said. “As much as I'd love for him to start, it's not – it wouldn't be an intelligent decision. It'd be a selfish one on my part, and I won't make that. It's not about me. It's about the team and the club and making sure that I'm always looking down the road and making decisions that are based on the long term, not the short term.”

But from here on out, Vermes said with tongue in cheek, he'll expect to see Zusi show off the same aerial skills he showed in Panama.

“He's on a hot streak scoring. He'd better keep scoring for us,” he said. “I've made a decision that late in games, we're just going to put him in the box and we're just going to serve it in so he can head everything home.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.