Graham Zusi is back in Panama, the country whose collective heart he broke in the moment that he became – for a while, at least – Mexico's "San Zusi."
Sporting Kansas City's right back is part of a US national team that, despite Friday's 6-0 thrashing of Honduras, still faces a fight to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup after last November's 0-2 start to Hexagonal play that spelled the end of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as coach.
They haven't forgotten him, either, as this front page – tweeted by Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl – clearly shows:
THE GHOST RETURNS. Graham Zusi staring deep into the soul of Panama 4 years after dashing their World Cup dreams. pic.twitter.com/mZn6QlvY9D— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) March 27, 2017
In case you missed all the fun three and a half years ago, here's why Zusi will get anything but a warm welcome when he returns to Estadio Rommel Fernandez for Tuesday night's qualifier:
It was the night of Oct. 15, 2013 – the final night of Hex play, all three matches around CONCACAF kicking off simultaneously. Four nights earlier, in his home stadium in Kansas City, Kan., Zusi had scored the first goal in a 2-0 victory over Jamaica that guaranteed the Yanks first place in the Hexagonal.
Meanwhile, Mexico – which had struggled through a succession of frustrating results and coaching changes – sat on the outside of the bubble. Only three teams from the region were guaranteed spots in the World Cup; the fourth would have to win a home-and-home series against New Zealand, the Oceania champion, to make it.
Mexico needed to get at least a point against Costa Rica or for the Panamanians to drop points at home. Otherwise, Panama would finish fourth and El Tri would sit this tournament out.
Before the night's matches, American fans acknowledged their conflicting emotions. Some went as far to suggest, via various social media platforms during the run-up to the Hex finale, that Klinsmann might want to run out a beer-league XI. Those sentiments continued even after the match started. After all, the reasoning went, wouldn't Mexico do the same if the Yanks – their archrivals – were in the same position?
If a US loss to Panama in the final qualifier means Mexico misses out on the World Cup altogether Klinsmann better tank that game so hard.— Dan Weiner (@DanWeiner) September 11, 2013
You know what. Klinsmann should let Panama score. Forget Mexico. #USMNT— Brian Lomax (@Brian_Lomax) October 16, 2013
(Confession: I was among the ones who wouldn't have been all that upset to see Panama prevail. I can couch that in all sorts of reasoning – an advantage in recruiting dual nationals going forward, for instance – but when it comes to US-Mexico, the cerebral always gives way to the visceral.)
That didn't happen. Klinsmann put out a competitive lineup – and yet, late in both matches, things still didn't look good for Mexico. Costa Rica and Panama both held 2-1 leads, and American fans were gearing up to give Mexican fans an earful of schadenfreude.
Then Brad Davis whipped in a stoppage-time cross, Zusi scored the first headed goal of his career – and the legend of San Zusi was born, any American dismay notwithstanding. The stunned and dispirited hosts fell apart on defense, and Aron Johannsson bagged the winner to give the US a 3-2 victory.
In Costa Rica, in the dying minutes of Mexico's losing the battle but winning the fourth-place war, the call went out, calling down divine blessing on the USA and promising: "We love you, forever and ever!"
(They don't now, of course, and nobody really expected that they would – but did they ever at the time.)
Zusi was his usual low-key self through all that followed – the gifts, the joint US-Mexico jerseys with his name on the back, the depictions of him enhaloed and canonized – and, Zusi being Zusi, he'll approach this as he does every other match. You can't get anything approaching a controversial or self-congratulatory quote out of the guy. I know. I've tried.
It won't matter to the fans in Panama, where Zusi has scored twice in international competition – including opening his USMNT account at Rommel Fernandez in a January 2012 friendly. They're never going to love him there, no matter how humble he is, not unless he knocks in a few own goals – something he's unlikely to do.
But can he do something on Tuesday – even off the bench, after playing a substitute's role on Friday against Honduras – to keep the US squarely in the qualifying picture and similarly endear himself to his own country's fans? It could happen.
Granted, right backs don't score nearly as often as winger/mids. Zusi's function now, in Bruce Arena's second tenure at he US helm, is to break up attacks and provide service on runs down the flank, not to finish possessions into the net. But given his past history in Panama City, it would be hard to pencil him out of the scoring column if he sees the pitch on Tuesday.
Maybe they won't make holy cards with his picture on them – and even among home fans, it's hard to be beloved forever and ever. Even with his three goals in two World Cup qualifying cycles, two assists at the World Cup proper in 2014 and long, accomplished club career, Zusi is not universally embraced by US supporters.
But if "San Zusi" can slot one more home against the Canaleros this time around, it's a safe bet they'll be singing – or tweeting – his praises in living rooms and sports bars across the country.