Only one word. “Glorious.” That from Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell when asked about Graham Zusi in March of 2020.
Emanating from Sporting Kansas City’s veteran right back Graham Zusi’s play is joy. Exuding from his work rate is passion. Evident in his actions is support for his teammates.
But in 2019 – a losing season in which the then 33-year-old Zusi and his teammates experienced little to no fun (as stated in a recent “I Am Home” podcast interview released by Nebraska Furniture Mart) – that joy sputtered.
The start of the 2020 season brought renewed intent, and, as he stated at SKC’s March 3rd media day that year, feeling physically better than he had “in a long time.” - that after a 2019 in which Zusi was rarely available for interviews because he was constantly getting treatment for a variety of ailments.
Then COVID destroyed any feelings of normalcy that season, followed by an October incident against the Chicago Fire that brought a final halt to many pages of Zusi’s passion when he was sidelined for the remainder of the season due to a midfoot sprain in his left foot at age 34.
Life can indeed tackle us from behind.
I vividly recall looking behind me as I walked where media is always told to walk - on the outskirts of the training pitch – to interview Sporting Manager Peter Vermes in 2009 or 2010 at the Swope Park Training Center. I was watching Graham Zusi hit some balls before leaving training. His talent was clear. ‘Why isn’t he being given more time?’ I wondered.
“Not one moment” was Zusi’s response in March of 2020 when I asked him if there was a moment in his first two years when he felt he had done enough to earn a starting position with Sporting Kansas City.
“As time goes on, as a player, you want to be on the field. I remember going into the coaches’ office, not demanding to be on the field, but asking questions. ‘What do I need to do to get on the field?’ [I was] just trying to soak up information,” the now seven-time MLS All-Star recalled. “Peter [told] me to be patient, ‘Your chance is coming. It will come. But it’s what you do with those chances.‘ I definitely remember that part of my young career, just trying to get better every single day.”
Ultimately, then, Zusi’s breakthrough was “not one moment” but constant efforting.
With five goals and seven assists in 32 appearances, Zusi earned MLS’s 2011 Breakout Player of Year.
An MLS Best 11 nod and an MVP finalist honor came in 2012 after a 5-goal-15-assist season (very similar to 2021 MLS MVP favorite Carlos Gil’s 4 goals and 18 assists).
During the 2013 playoffs, Zusi assisted the game-tying goal versus New England Revolution in the conference semifinal and the game-tying goal against Real Salt Lake in Kansas City’s MLS Cup victory (at the 3:26 mark).
In 2015, Zusi assisted Krisztian Nemeth’s match tying goal and finished a penalty in the shootout to help bring home the US Open Cup trophy.
Along the way to June of 2016, bangers were struck:
Calls to the US National Team came. The game-winning assist vs Ghana, a start and an assist in the next match (2-2 vs Portugal), and starts against the next opponents Germany and Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. A 4th place finish in the 2016 Copa America Centenario. Four starts and a championship in the 2017 Gold Cup.
Let us not forget, the rarest of rare feats – gaining Mexican sainthood - after scoring against Panama on the last day of 2014 World Cup qualifying to help Mexico eventually qualify for the World Cup.
The fact that Zusi’s breakthrough was the result of constant effort is not a stunning revelation, or even rare. But what has followed, and how the Longwood, Florida, native has gone about the life and “business” of a professional soccer player is stunning. And increasingly scarce.
Zusi has played all 13 years of his career with one side, making a remarkable 346 appearances for Sporting Kansas City. Name a handful of athletes outside or inside of MLS who have spent that long with one club since the century began…
Along the way, a midstream switch to right back from winger/midfield and his “late-age” stay have drawn plenty of ire for the now 35-year-old Maryland product (not surprisingly, Zusi and his teammates were College Cup champs in 2005 & 2008).
The idea of Zusi playing right back was dabbled with late in 2016, then took hold in 2017. The early reviews were mostly positive. As Zusi grew into the position and the immense weight it carries in a 4-3-3, not only did his strengths become more clear, but so did his inexperience and weaknesses. Teams began to target the then debutant: Run multiple attackers at him to force errant decisions. See if he can handle an especially fast or skilled attacker. Force him to have to recover after attacks. And with Zusi’s age, those questions from pundits and challenges from opponents have increased. Sometimes - then and now - the play fits the narrative. There have been mistakes like this in 2021:
And other moments where Zusi has been one of the, or the, guilty party. As a result, he has been called out on social media by SKC followers and pundits alike.
Zusi’s mentality, however, is what is has always been: “The urgency hasn’t become different. We are competitive guys; we want to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. Every day at training, I’m trying to get better,” he said in our 2020 interview. “It’s no different than how I was as a rookie or 2nd or 3rd year player.” Not one moment has Zusi stopped endeavoring to be the best he can for his club.
There are not many stats supporting Zusi as a solid defender. There are examples: So far in 2021, Zusi is 4th on the team in percentage of duels won by a regular field player. But no stat for how many times he has made 30-yard runs (or more) to win back the ball after an attack has fizzled. No stat for how his positioning has nullified an attack or an attacking idea by opponents. (Need a strong defensive moment? Check out Zusi’s wonderful tackle of the LA Galaxy’s Sacha Kljestan in the 87th minute of last Wednesday’s 2-0 win.)
The truth is: If one is judging Graham Zusi by his defensive prowess, he or she is missing the point.
“He’s always there, always an option. He is constantly supplying you with the ball, constantly overlapping, giving you an option, dragging defenders away and giving you space. He has the engine to run down that right side; he does in week-in-and-week-out. We have a really good understanding of each other’s game and how we play,” stated current team captain and fellow right flank marauder Johnny Russell shortly into the 2020 season.
Thursday, August 4th versus LAFC, Zusi served two primary assists in a 4-1 home win to earn MLS Team of the Week honors. He is passing at an 86.2% success rate with 24 successful crosses (9 more than his opposite, left back Luis Martins), and his five assists on the season are more than he has had since 2018. He is tied for third on the team in key passes in 2021. Zusi is 2nd in KC history with 81 assists in all competitions. Imagine what his numbers would be if he were still a midfielder or winger, still allowed to roam the field entire, to cut in from the left and strike for goal with his cultured right foot. Imagine if he still had the likes of Kei Kamara, CJ Sapong, and Aurelien Collin in the box to put away his strong, often pinpoint, crosses.
And still, Zusi takes down passes – those at his chest, those belted quickly to his feet or high from the atmosphere or those hit right at his hips – with ease, like those pizza dough flippers do the crust or those freakish knife twirlers who do not nick a vein.
Graham Zusi is a model of consistency, amazing consistency for 13 seasons, for 318 MLS matches, for 25,024 minutes, for one side, his side – Sporting Kansas City.
In 2021, Zusi has played more minutes than expected as 21-year-old, up-and-coming right back Jaylin Lindsey went down with an injury earlier this season, when Zusi himself was coming off that 2020 injury. He has played well (see Shaun Goodwin’s story at kansascity.com for more detail, if you have access). And perhaps has not received the credit.
“I agree… He’s an incredible example, especially for the young players. But I know all the older players respect him immensely because he takes care of himself and is always doing what he has to do to make sure he is prepared for the next game,” said Vermes in response to a prompt about Zusi from The Blue Testament’s Thad Bell last Friday. ”And he cares so much about the result, the team, the club. He is one of the main guys that this club has been built on… He’s been instrumental. He’s in form. And we need to make sure that continues.”
Zusi’s intensity, his intentional actions, rarely, if ever, wane.
The heart and will of a winner… is a description that seems to fall short for a talented man who continues to do all he can on the field and all he can off the field for his teammates and for a giving person who does what he can for those battling bigger battles.
“Glorious. He’s a glorious man. Zeus is an absolute legend here. Great, great guy,” added Russell. “He is , but still probably the first guy here. He constantly looks after himself. A great guy for the locker room. Just a genuinely great guy to be around. He constantly helps out everyone, especially the young guys.”
There will come that day when Zusi’s value as a soccer player will fade, when the sure onslaught of aging in a professional athlete will win. His contract with Kansas City is up at the end of the season. Who knows what will transpire then.
But the playoffs are coming. Another chance for glory. Last year, his absence in Sporting’s 3-0 shocking playoff loss to Minnesota United FC was palpable. His spirit and tirelessness, his experience, not to mention his attacking prowess, missed.
Not one moment does Zusi turn off. See it in is his effort. See it in his giving off the field. See it in his chagrin when things go wrong on the field, and in his determination in the next moment to first go forward, then to make it right.
Damn right Graham Zusi doesn’t care about criticism or that opponents may target his “defensive shortcomings.” All Graham Zusi cares about is everything else.
Sure enough, Zusi himself confirmed much of that Tuesday at Sporting KC’s presser: “I continue to try to learn and hone my game. I feel like I am constantly learning the position, the game, and I go about every day in training with [the] mentality of not being satisfied with what I have been able to do, but [focused on] what can I now do from here on out… To me it’s all about what can we or I do moving forward… to ultimately win those trophies and cups we are after?”