The following is the cover story from the first edition of the OVERLAP Magazine, discussing the rise of Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi and the idea of him someday replacing LA Galaxy star Landon Donovan as one the brightest stars in Major League Soccer. To get more longform content like this and to take a more in-depth look at MLS and soccer in North America, make sure to download the OVERLAP Magazine app for iPad, iPhone, or Android.
ROBBIE KEANE DOESN'T LOOK HAPPY. It’s midway through MLS’s first-ever media day at Red Bull Arena – the league’s stars have been flown in less than two weeks before the start of the season to chat up reporters and sponsors – and the Irish international’s packed schedule says that at this moment he and Dan Kennedy of Chivas USA are supposed to be in the players’ lounge, battling each other in FIFA 13 on Xbox while some Microsoft guys shoot video of them. But Kennedy is five minutes late, and Keane, all black-leather jacket, gelled buzz cut, and attitude to match, is about to walk out.
“Hey, Zusi,” one of the Microsoft guys yells out, his voice ringing through the room. Keane’s head spins around at the name.
Graham Zusi, Sporting KC’s red-hot midfielder – the man the national team is hoping will make the difference on its way to Brazil, perhaps even supplanting Keane’s legendary Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan – has been standing quietly at the edge of the room. The Microsoft guy bounds over, barely able to contain his excitement.
“Zusi, man, how you doing? Ready for Costa Rica?” he says, referring to the US national team’s next opponent in World Cup qualifying.
Keane watches the conversation silently from across the room, a $3 million alpha dog, the 11th highest goal scorer in the history of the Premier League, sizing up a rival. His eyes dart from Zusi’s sneakers to the Samson-style hair curling over the back of his hoodie. Zusi flashes an easy surfer smile at the Microsoft fanboy. It’s the same smile that made a make-up girl spontaneously clutch her heart from the sidelines during the group photo shoot this morning.
Keane throws a fierce look at his personal handler, a sharp-suited guy flown in by the Galaxy to look after its investment, but even he can’t click his Gucci loafers together three times to make Kennedy materialize or re-focus the energy in the room back on the Irish striker.
“F*** this,” Keane barks, walking out. He’s not going to stand around watching some young pup get all the love.
THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE ZUSI’S YEAR AND HE KNOWS IT. So does everyone else. With the 2014 World Cup looming and his club in ascension as it settles into its new stadium, he has to perform, has to deliver for the national team.
The 26-year-old had a breakout 2011 on the right side of KC’s three-man midfield, despite the fact that construction on Sporting Park meant that the team played its first ten games on the road. He was the league’s player of the month in June after creating three straight game-winning assists and helped lead Sporting to the Eastern Conference final. He continued to surge in 2012, leading the league with 15 assists and being named an All-Star, a member of the league’s Best XI, and a finalist for the league MVP. Most important, he led Sporting back to the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost for a second straight year to Houston.
Zusi scores again!
Zusi’s technical skill and elegant passing caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann, the blunt German hired to transform the US squad, and it was no surprise when Zusi was called in to the national team camp in January 2012. Klinsmann has been saying all along that what the national team needs to bring it to the next level is the sort of talent and work ethic that Zusi exemplifies.
"He has a remarkable amount of promise, and the kind of attitude toward the game that can make a difference,” says Klinsmann.
That promise was obvious in his first international game in January 2012, a win over Venezuela; four days later, he scored his first goal on the global stage in the ninth minute of a 1–0 victory away against Panama. Zusi was 25 years old and had never been called into a US youth national team, but he had played his way onto the full men’s team. In October, late in a 3–1 win over Guatemala on his home turf in Kansas City, he left the field as the capacity crowd hailed him with the chant, “Zeus! Zeus!” The New York Times wrote a rapturous profile of him, calling his skills “sagacious,” no less. Who could blame him for believing he was a god?
BUT THAT’S NOT THE WAY GRAHAM ZUSI ROLLS, which is both his strength and, it may turn out, his weakness. At 5-foot-10 and faultlessly toned, there isn’t a hint of self-promoting strut nor a whiff of wild beast about him. It’s not his style. He’s downright mellow and – dare it be said about a professional soccer player – humble. When told over breakfast at a trendy SoHo restaurant the morning after the media event that Keane, whom he’s never met, eyed him savagely in the player’s lounge, he laughs.
“It’s a strange situation," Zusi says. "On one hand, you’re told you’re all working toward the same thing, to lift the sport in the US. And then on the other hand, the other guy is supposed to be your enemy, so I understand.”
Zusi finds it hard to generate that kind of killer instinct unless he is on the field. Perhaps that’s why, unlike an increasing number of young stars in MLS, he stayed in college long enough to earn a degree. He has always assumed he would need to be prepared for a life after soccer, perhaps sooner rather than later. He still hopes his specialization in criminology and international terrorism will enable him to work overseas, perhaps in foreign service or intelligence.
“It’s true that when he first came to us, he was pretty shy,” says Sasho Cirovski, Zusi’s coach at the University of Maryland. “He’s just not the kind of person who’s concerned with feeding his ego.”
Early on, Cirovski says, Zusi had “real, raw talent,” but he sometimes held back, not always charging into the action. The transformation paid dividends, as the Terrapins won NCAA national championships in 2005 and 2008.
Part of the problem, ironically, was his versatility – Cirovski played him at every position on the field, and he was strong in all of them – but that meant he wasn’t adequately focused. So Cirovski eventually had him concentrate his efforts at midfield, and once he did, “he was spectacular. He was still a nice guy off the field, but he started to transform into a different animal on the field.”
It probably helped that he was sharing the turf with a few other Maryland superstars, including Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza, both of whom were drafted by – and won MLS Cups with – the Galaxy. “It was pretty amazing talent,” says Cirovski of that team. “And Graham stepped right up. It was he who made those championships for us. He was the man.”
In a typical display of humility and candor, Zusi insists he wasn’t disappointed when his teammates went before him in the draft. (He was picked No. 23 overall by Kansas City.) “They’re amazing, and I was just happy to get a spot,” he says, digging into his bowl of oatmeal (no coffee, no bread), seemingly unaware that three young women dressed in sleek downtown style at the next table are checking him out.
Robbie Keane doesn’t need to be told to be a killer. He knows that naked aggression is what it takes, especially on the international stage. The question he’s asking, everyone’s asking: does Zusi have it? Can he run with the alpha dogs?
Zusi scores one more time!
Graham Zusi’s ability to subsume his ego and consistently improve his performance without the ups and downs that mark – and even destroy – many careers, has been evident since he became a professional as well. He was tentative when he first started playing for the then-Kansas City Wizards – in his first two seasons he started only nine matches – but he soon hit his stride and has grown stronger each season, as has his team. “It’s been really intoxicating,” he says of the team’s rebirth as Sporting Kansas City. “We sell out every game, standing-room only!”
Zusi, says Sporting coach Peter Vermes, a former US international himself, “is the kind of player who lifts everyone’s game. You don’t want someone erratic – you want someone like him, who gets better every season, who’s able to see what needs to be done and will put himself into it fully.”
Klinsmann had his eye on Zusi through the player’s breakout 2011 season. “I saw what he was capable of, and I knew he was worth believing in.” Zusi, he concedes, “had some hesitancy” in the national team’s January 2012 training camp, but “it was amazing to watch him take things into his own hands. He seemed to realize that you can be the nicest guy off the field, but once you step on, you must become a warrior.” In the January 2013 camp, “all that hesitancy was gone,” says Klinsmann.
Earlier in January, West Ham United had him fly over and work out with the team, a stint, albeit short, that whet his appetite. He thrived in his first immersion in European soccer. Being in a place where the game is everything to everyone was “mind-blowing,” he says. “I’d love to do it again, somewhere over there, and really get in there, hard.”
BUT FOR NOW, ONE GOAL CONSUMES HIM: BRAZIL 2014. “This is the biggest year of my life,” he says. “It will change things forever for me, and I’m always aware of that.” Three of the four early hexagonal qualifiers are away games – not optimal for any team – and the first one, in Honduras in early February, was a disaster. The team only arrived in the country the day before the match, and it was met with temperatures above 80 degrees and grass on the pitch so long some players joked it was shin-high. Despite having had prior success against Honduras (only three previous losses in 18 games going back to 1965) and a brilliant goal by Clint Dempsey, the US team lost 2–1. Zusi came into the game as a 67th-minute substitute and didn’t have much effect. “It was a disappointment,” Zusi says, “but there’s a lot ahead of us and we’re focused on that.”
Klinsmann, who Zusi says communicates his vision in a positive way that gets the best out of his players, is confident the US team has made strides in its transformation over the past couple of years. “We are on our way to becoming a team that plays a more possession- oriented, European-style game, instead of the reactive play we’ve always fallen back on,” says Klinsmann. “The players are finally understanding what I mean when I say that we must be in there every minute, constantly involved in the game – not taking these breaks from the action. I think Zusi has really gotten that message.”
The next home World Cup qualifier – against Costa Rica on March 22 in Denver – is Zusi’s current obsession. “You really need to win your home games,” he says. “And I feel we’re in a good place to perform well.” His fitness regime reflects his dedication: three hours a day at the gym and early nights at home with his girlfriend, a graduate student. He’s a fierce snowboarder and outdoorsman, but he doesn’t get too much time these days to bask in nature, nor does he want to risk an injury. He flashes back to the ACL tear that his college teammate Omar Gonzalez suffered last year. “Too much is at stake for me right now.”
Zusi grows even more circumspect when asked about Landon Donovan. It’s no secret that he is being groomed to take the legendary player’s place on the national team, but all Zusi will say is that Donovan, 30, the US men’s all-time leader in goals and assists after more than 12 years as a professional, is “remarkable.” Last on the field in December for MLS Cup, Donovan has been on an extended sabbatical since then, though he told Galaxy coach Bruce Arena that he’ll resume practicing with the team in late March and be ready to play again sometime in late April. “Landon deserves a rest,” Zusi says.
If Donovan sticks to that schedule, he’ll miss the first couple of months of the MLS regular season and the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal round, not to mention a couple of World Cup qualifiers. His teammates insist the time off will mean he’ll be back stronger than ever, but there’s a creeping sense that his time dominating the beautiful game in the US – and for the US – may be coming to an end.
“Of course we are looking for Graham to fill that space,” says Klinsmann. “That is what we’re hoping for. That is the way the world works. Landon Donovan has been a great player, an incredible player, but it comes time for someone new to take your place. It happened to me as a player, so I know. And now it is Graham’s turn, if he can take that step, if he is ready to turn that tremendous potential into a reality.”
NANCY HASS IS A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO GQ, THE NEW YORK TIMES, AND THE ECONOMIST. SHE HAS WRITTEN ABOUT WOMEN IN COMBAT, THE FUTURE OF NETFLIX, AND THE TRAVAILS OF FORMER WIDE RECEIVER TERRELL OWENS. HER PROFILE OF THE LATE LOS ANGELES SPORTSWRITER MIKE PENNER APPEARED IN THE BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2011.