When I was younger, my dad was my soccer coach. I loved club soccer—there was no pressure (other than my own desire to win), it was great exercise (I regret not playing now), and I always had so much fun. After games, my dad would joke that he could tell that I was in good form if he saw my shaggy brown hair flying down the field.
Those were the good days. But that all changed for me when I began high school soccer—I felt pressure from my coaches, started to hate exercise because we conditioned so much, and my hair was no longer shaggy enough to fly down the field because my coaches believed players should look like soldiers.
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With my own soccer-playing days in mind, I couldn't help but grin Sunday evening as I watched Graham Zusi playing his best game for Sporting KC in a long time. His hair—albeit constrained in a man bun—was indeed flying down the field. He looked like prime Zusi: energetic, involved, quick, cunning, skillful, creative, clinical.
But Graham Zusi isn't one to talk about himself—a trait that few big-time players share.
When asked by reporters about his performance against Columbus Crew SC, Zusi, without hesitation, praised his teammates.
"Everyone was more active tonight. The fight, determination to get that win was really good."
But on a night when Sporting Kansas City rose to the challenge against a never-say-die Columbus side, Zusi's significant contributions couldn't be missed. Even before his 56th-minute goal, the Kansas City veteran seemed to have a reborn spark in his eye, a skip in his step, an unmistakable passion in his play that seemed to have gone missing after the 2014 World Cup.
"Today was a good day," Zusi told me after a group of reporters cleared away.
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Turn back the clock five years. It's 2011, and Graham Zusi has emphatically broken onto the scene for Sporting Kansas City. His minutes on the field have more than quadrupled from 2010, and he leads the team with seven assists, also notching five goals (including the absolute stunner embed below).
2012: Zusi's form improves, as he once again tallies five goals, but more than doubles his previous season's assists. His contributions help Sporting KC lift their first trophy (the U.S. Open Cup) since 2004.
2013: Zusi is once again part of a core group of players, this time leading Sporting to an MLS Cup championship, the club's first since 2000. Leading up to the final, Zusi contributes six goals and eight assists.
2014: Zusi (five goals, eight assists) is rewarded on the national level, included in the U.S. Men's National Team roster for the World Cup. The USMNT fizzles out in the round of 16, but Zusi has a decent tournament, earning three starts and notching an assist against Portugal. But his form with Sporting KC isn't great upon return to the United States.
2015: Zusi only scores two goals and makes five assists, the lowest totals in each category since 2010.
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While stats do help paint the picture, I'm one that believes that the whole story can't be determined by numbers. Sure, Graham Zusi's goal against Columbus on Sunday (a beauty) could be a sign of a good stretch of form for the central midfielder turned winger, but I think the joy with which he played is a better indicator. I think it signals a change in mood, a reinvigoration of sorts. He played with the same excitement against Columbus that led to his breakthrough in 2011.
Perhaps it was exhaustion. Perhaps it was the pressure of balancing his roles with the national team and Sporting KC. Or perhaps he just wasn't enjoying himself as much as he used to, similar to how I felt in high school. I can only speculate as to why Graham Zusi's form lagged after the 2014 World Cup.
But it's no speculation to say that on Sunday evening, I saw the old Graham Zusi. A carefree Graham Zusi—a Graham Zusi that Sporting Kansas City needs in order to make a push toward the playoffs.