KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It's safe to say Graham Zusi is all the way back from the quad strain that sidelined him for the better part of August – and that recovery has come at a clutch time for both club and country.
After scoring the game-winning goal on Saturday night, giving Sporting Kansas City a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids and a three-way share of the Eastern Conference lead, Zusi is off to join a US national team looking to sew up a berth in the 2014 World Cup.
But as is usually the case, Zusi – who has started in three club matches across all competitions since returning from the injury – preferred to talk about his club's success rather than his own.
“I can’t stress how important this is for us,” he said during the postmatch news conference. “This was pretty much a must-win game for us. We needed to get back on track in order to put ourselves in a good spot. This will get our confidence back up and we’ll finish the season strong.”
And his 88th-minute goal, which delivered those crucial three points? Zusi laid that at the feet of second-half sub C.J. Sapong, whose flicked-back header of Chance Myers' cross set him up for a left-footed blast into the net.
“C.J. is such a presence in the air,” Zusi said. “Nine times out of 10 he’s going to win it. I gave him a shout, but I don’t think I needed to because he saw me from the beginning. That was his goal from the minute he lifted off to win that ball. It was just a perfect layoff.”
And Zusi put it away perfectly.
“Excellent finish by Graham,” manager Peter Vermes said. “That's not an easy ball to hit, especially when it's tucked underneath you a little bit, but he puts in a great ball.”
Sporting didn't appear to need any late heroics for much of the match, going up 1-0 in the 33rd minute on Benny Feilhaber's 30-yard golazo after Dom Dwyer deflected a 50-50 ball away from Rapids midfielder Hendry Thomas and into space.
“I think that came as an effect of what we were doing in the first half, which was playing and moving the ball, and they were really getting tired,” Feilhaber said. “I think that ball gets headed on, and Dom gets to it because they're getting a little more tired than we are. He kind of flicks it toward me, I take a touch and survey the options. But once it was bouncing, I figured I'd take a rip.”
But in the 77th, the Rapids' Edson Buddle, who had come on in the 70th minute, tracked down Aurelien Collin's headed clearance outside the area and took a low shot that deflected off Matt Besler's foot and went in for the equalizer.
“It was a gigantic disappointment,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “We felt we had control. But we bounced back with the right reaction and scored a hell of a great goal in the 88th minute.”
Zusi's goal … just in time.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.