KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Graham Zusi ran onto the pass, drew back his right foot and smashed the ball into the net. The moment was both triumphant punctuation to Sporting Kansas City's sixth straight postseason qualification, and a reminder that while his numbers might not be what they used to be, Sporting's veteran winger remains a force to be accounted for.
Injuries and international absence have limited Zusi to 21 appearances with 18 starts this season – his lowest numbers in both categories since 2010, his sophomore season with the then-Wizards. His four assists are also the fewest since then, and Sunday's goal – an 88th-minute insurance strike in a 2-0 victory over San Jose, sealing Sporting's spot in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs – was only his second of the season.
But anyone who looks only at Zusi's numbers on the scoresheet is missing the bigger picture, those around him insist.
“I don't think he's ever been off,” forward Jacob Peterson told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday, as fifth-seeded Sporting prepared for Thursday night's Western Conference Knockout Round match at fourth-seeded Seattle (10 pm ET, FS1, UniMás | TSN1/5 in Canada). “He brings a lot to the team that maybe a lot of people on the outside can't see, but in the locker room, we all know how valuable he is.
“Even if he's not scoring goals, the work that he puts in – not only defensively, but his movement off the ball – is second to none.”
Manager Peter Vermes also cited Zusi's dedication to grunt work as a big reason why he's among the veterans Sporting will count on in the playoffs.
“He has a very good work rate on the field,” Vermes said. “I think he's pretty relentless in the way that he goes up against his individual defender that he meets up with. Like a lot of guys, if he's on, he can score. At the same time, he can give the final pass. He's very dangerous and can create a lot of stuff for us.”
Regular-season statistics also don't take Zusi's performances in knockout situations into account – and were it not for him, Sporting might not have the three trophies they've won in the past four seasons.
He had two goals and an assist in their run to the US Open Cup title in 2012, two assists in five matches when they took the 2013 MLS Cup, and a goal and an assist – the latter in the championship match against Philadelphia – when they won the Open Cup again in 2015.
And after missing three matches this fall with a calf strain picked up during World Cup qualifying with the US national team, Zusi is feeling good and ready for the postseason.
“You hear everyone say that playoff time, it's the team that's healthy and hot that seems to do well,” he said on Tuesday. “I feel good. One hundred percent. I was out because of that calf injury, but once that healed up – 100 percent.”