KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Until a few months ago, Graham Zusi was, by just about any definition, an unknown.
He had started just nine games in two seasons since being chosen in the second round out of the University of Maryland. He hadn’t played more than 600 minutes in either of his Major League Soccer campaigns. Zusi had a goal and an assist to his name, but not much else.
But Sporting manager Peter Vermes knew what he had, even if nobody else really did, and he made sure Zusi stayed put in Kansas City.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Vermes said. “Each year that I’ve been here, I’ve protected [Zusi] when we have expansion drafts. With him not playing a lot, that’s kind of unusual. But I protected him because I’d seen the quality he has, and I didn’t want to lose that.”
It took more than two years for that quality to truly see the light of day, but Zusi is certainly shining now, taking MLS by storm during a breakout season.
The 25-year-old midfielder has already started 17 games and played more minutes this season than he did in his first two years combined, while contributing five goals and four assists for a Sporting Kansas City squad that’s lost just once since he entered the starting lineup for good in late May.
But realistically, Zusi may have been the only person other than Vermes who believed this kind of rapid ascension would come this quickly.
“After last year, I looked at where I was, and, to be honest, I wasn’t satisfied whatsoever,” Zusi said. “I’m not satisfied being a substitute player in this league. My goal was to become a starter and make a name for myself.”
And that he did. With consistent starts and extended time on the field came confidence. With confidence came the plaudits.
Zusi won MLS Player of the Month in June after tacking up two goals and three assists as Sporting began their march up the table. He followed that up with Player of the Week honors last week after scoring two goals — one a spectacular long-range strike — against Portland.
That performance led Timber’s manager John Spencer to call Zusi one of the best strikers of the ball in MLS, which didn't surprise Vermes at all.
He said Sporting drafted Zusi for the vast potential they saw in him: the ability on the ball in tight spaces, the vicious right foot and a work rate suited for MLS. It was just a matter of drawing it out and putting him in positions to be successful.
“When you take guys that come out of college, they have what’s called the late-bloomer syndrome,” Vermes said. “But how late is that? For him, it was just learning every day the ropes of being a professional, consistency, and then eventually having the confidence to make his stamp on the game.”
All of which simply took time, something Zusi said often tested his patience but has been a career norm for the Florida native since college.
He waited his turn at Maryland as a freshman before locking down a starting spot as a sophomore and helping the Terps to national championships in 2005 and 2008. By the time Zusi’s college career was finished, he had accumulated 28 goals and 20 assists and been named Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the 2008 College Cup after delivering game-winning goals in the both the semifinal and final.
He’s done roughly the same thing in Kansas City, making the most of his opportunities after slowly acclimating to the pace of the professional game and to the inherent physicality of MLS.
“I’m not the biggest guy in the world,” said Zusi, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. “To know that you’re going to take some knocks and know that you need to dish some as well was a little bit different for me.”
Along with Roger Espinoza, Zusi makes up two thirds of a midfield trio that has put Sporting’s opponents under an immense amount of pressure offensively and defensively for the better part of the past three months.
“[Zusi] makes my job a lot easier playing with him in the middle,” Espinoza said. “He’s got very good technique. His defensive role is good. He covers my butt a lot, and I cover him. The long hair thing might be working out, too.”
Zusi’s success has created assorted rumblings about whether or not he’s merited a call-up from freshly-appointed US national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann. Zusi acknowledged that would represent a childhood dream come true but maintained that he is focused on the things he can control for now.
Most important of which to help Sporting reach the playoffs for the first time in his career.
“I haven’t been able to make the playoffs in this league yet, so that’s No. 1 on the list,” he said. “From there, I think we have a very good shot at contending for the championship this year. Those are my top priorities.”