What a Difference a Year Makes
A year ago today, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi stood on the field as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team for only the second time in his career, the first coming four days earlier in Los Angeles. Making his second straight start, Zusi silenced the crowd at Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City with an opportunistic finish in the eighth minute that carried the U.S. to a 1-0 victory. Combined with a stellar showing during the January camp, Zusi had launched the beginning of a promising international career.
With the absence of Landon Donovan for key contests, Zusi seized the opportunity. Deployed on the right flank, he contributed speed, a high work rate and the ability to deliver a quality cross, the latter of which he put on display when he teed up Eddie Johnson for the first goal in the 2-1 win in Antigua & Barbuda. By year’s end, Zusi had collected a total of six caps; more importantly, his name was written on the starter’s sheet for the final three matches of the Semifinal Round of FIFA World Cup qualifying. For Zusi, earning a place in the National Team has been a long work in progress.
"I guess you can say it was a quick ascent, but in my eyes I don't just look at this as the last year of work,” he said. “It's been a long road with 20 hard years of a lot of dedication and work that went into this, so I'm extremely happy it paid off.”The reward was especially sweet for the 3-1 win against Guatemala that sealed first place in the group for the United States, when Zusi played in front of his home fans in Kansas City.
“All in all, it was a lot of fun for me,” Zusi said. “It was just an incredible atmosphere and you'd expect nothing less."
Zusi’s momentum toward the National Team was ignited by a stellar year in 2011 for Sporting Kansas City when he appeared in 32 regular season matches while scoring five goals and notching a team-high seven assists as the team reached the Eastern Conference Championship.
Fast forward to 2012, and the biggest thing he noticed was a growing confidence fueled by his performance in the January camp.
“I don't think I deserved to be here [earlier in my career], but as of late my game has evolved a little bit and I've found myself in the position to play a lot more games, get my confidence up and make a difference,” Zusi said. “When you feel confident, you're allowed to take a little bit more risk and you can believe in yourself a little bit more."
His ascendance in the National Team has served as an inspiration to the many newcomers to this year’s camp in Carson and has also added to his responsibility to be a leader and an example.
“We hope with the January camp that the players understand that if they really grow, become personalities and take their lives and careers in their own hands, they can make the jump like Graham Zusi,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “You expect the guys who have been here before, like Zusi to pass on their experience as quickly as possible to the next group. They become your right hand, your communicators and your connectors. I want to see them take over responsibilities and show all the other guys how serious this is.”
Zusi looks back on the past year as a time of growth and also as having laid the foundation for what lies ahead.
“At the beginning of last year I was just getting my toe in the door,” Zusi said. “I wanted to make an impression and then continue to get better throughout the year. This year I want to better my game, and to become a little bit more of a leader on and off the field.”