KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Look only at the stats, and it might seem that Graham Zusi's production is down this season and has suffered in the playoffs for the past three years.
Ask the people who work with Sporting Kansas City's star winger, and they aren't buying it.
“Zus has been doing a fantastic job,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber told MLSsoccer.com on Friday, one day ahead of Sporting's MLS Cup final match against Real Salt Lake. “He's been one of our most important guys, if not the most important guy. He does all the things that people notice on a regular basis, and a lot of things that people don't. So he really makes every person around him better.”
That doesn't always translate onto the stat sheet, though. So where Zusi had a league-best 15 assists in 2012, it dropped to eight this year. And while his six goals in 2013 are one more than he had last season, he tried to score far less often.
Zusi took 50 shots this year, down from 82 in 2012, and his shots on goal dropped from 24 to 19.
That might be worrisome, manager Peter Vermes said, if Sporting weren't on the threshold of their first MLS Cup since 2000.
“If he was out of form, then I'd say maybe we have to start looking at other things to kind of give you a reason why,” Vermes said. “But he does so much for us over the course of every match. He's so valuable, it's incredible. Whether he gets a shot off or not, that's not really where it lays. It's the result at the end of the game.”
On Thursday, during a news conference, another set of numbers came up. Zusi has taken 17 shots in the postseason over three years – but none on goal. That doesn't bother him, and he rejected any idea that he's not fit enough to be a scoring threat in the playoffs.
“I’m very happy with my fitness level right now,” he said. “It gets stronger and stronger throughout the season and we’ve done a great job throughout the latter end of the season and through the playoffs to rest when you need it and to go hard when you need it as well. I thought that was as funny stat myself, I heard it for the first time two years ago. And there’s so much more that goes on to a game than those stats. I’m not worried about it. I’m happy to let other people get the shots on frame and scoring goals. As long as we’re ahead at the end of the game, I don’t care if I get a goal or a shot on frame.”
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And anyone questioning Zusi's late-season fitness level must not have watched him in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Feilhaber said.
“The game against New England, where we played 120 minutes, he ran close to 15 kilometers,” he said. “That's unheard of. It's the little things like that. He draws so many players to him, and that opens up space for the other guys around him. I'm definitely one of the guys who feels that the most. A lot of times, you can kind of have him make a run, and then make a run off of him, and usually you're open because of it because of the defenders he drags away.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.