The editorial staff at MLSsoccer.com is looking back over the year with our Best of 2011 awards, running Dec. 19 through Jan. 2. Each day we'll hand out an award in a variety of categories culled from the storylines of MLS and US international players, including Biggest Controversy, American Export of the Year and, via fan vote, the Moment of the Year.
In the latest installment, new media editor Andrew Wiebe takes a look at the MLS Breakout Player of the Year, Graham Zusi. Once a largely unknown player languising on Sporting Kansas City's bench, Zusi broke through this year with steady play and some highlight goals that have people wondering if a US call-up is in the cards in 2012.
Anyone who says they saw Graham Zusi’s breakout season coming in 2011 is either a liar or their last name is almost certainly Zusi or Vermes.
Not that Zusi’s previous MLS anonymity matters much now.
Sporting Kansas City’s dynamic, box-to-box midfielder with a Sampson-like mane of curly hair and blistering shot from distance simply played his way into the collective consciousness of MLS fans, players and pundits in 2011.
Befitting such a meteoric rise, Zusi ran away with MLSsoccer.com’s Breakout MLS Player of 2011 award, capping off a year in which he scored five goals and added seven assists in his first shot as a regular starter for manager Peter Vermes.
Looking back, it was all part of the plan, except Zusi and Vermes were the only ones in on it until Kansas City’s season started gaining steam and the highlight-reel strikes began rolling in.
“After last year, I looked at where I was and, to be honest, I wasn’t satisfied whatsoever,” Zusi told MLSsoccer.com in August. “I’m not satisfied being a substitute player in this league. My goal was to become a starter and make a name for myself.”
In a matter of nine short months, Zusi went from a relative unknown – a reserve midfielder with a boatload of college plaudits but little recognition as a professional – to a player with one of the most feared long-range strikes in the league. And suddenly, he’s even a dark horse to make Jurgen Klinnsman’s US national team camp in January.
After two nondescript seasons spent honing his craft in training (1,064 minutes played plus one goal and one assist in nine total starts), Zusi found himself in Vermes’ starting lineup 25 times in 2011, played 2,329 minutes and kept Jéferson – SKC’s Designated Player who since has been deemed surplus to requirements – on the bench.
"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.”
-SKC head coach
And even if the 25-year-old Maryland product doesn’t happen to parlay his breakout season into a US call-up, Zusi has plenty to be proud of heading into a 2012 season in which he will be a keg cog for a youthful Sporting side on the rise.
Regardless, league observers will be hard pressed to forget the highlights he racked up in 2011, none more incredible than the 45-yard laser beam he stroked, seemingly effortlessly, that sailed past a flailing FC Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman on June 12.
Lagging just behind was the 30-yard bomb that left Portland’s Troy Perkins helpless and prompted John Spencer to heap praise on the young midfielder on Aug. 17.
Now, all that’s left is to see what Zusi has in store for 2012, buoyed by his breakout season and the confidence in reserve to take his game to even greater heights.
2. Dominic Oduro, Chicago Fire – After being shipped out of Houston for his proclivity to misfire in front of net, Oduro did an about-face in Chicago and put together his best season as a pro. The Ghanaian speedster finished with 12 goals, tied for fourth in MLS this and seven more than his best season to date.
3. Tally Hall, Houston Dynamo – Hall’s first season as a starter in MLS introduced the masses to a goalkeeper that very well could be the next in a long line of standout American netminders. He started all 34 games for the Dynamo, exhibited top-class reflexes and athleticism and led his side to the brink of an MLS Cup championship.
WATCH: Discussing the Breakout Player of the Year