When his former college coach describes some of Graham Zusi’s deliveries as "Beckham-esque," Sasho Cirovski is guilty of only moderate hyperbole.
Cirovski remembers the 2008 ACC Tournament final when Maryland took on Virginia. The opening kickoff was touched to Zusi, and he promptly lobbed a shot from the center circle that nearly produced a stunning goal. Maryland still won, 1-0, and went on to take its second national title in four seasons.
Zusi was a member of both championship teams but in very different roles. “In the first year at Maryland he played a lot of different positions for us and started only one game,” recalled Cirovski. “You could see his technical qualities, his physical qualities, but he just didn’t have that ego or that swagger that goes along with players who know they’re good. Each year he had a bigger impact on our program and his senior year, he was the man for us, especially late in the season.
“The kid’s a winner. He won two national championships with us and played an important role in both of them. Now, I’ve got to believe Kansas City is the favorite to win the MLS Cup and Graham is a legitimate MVP candidate.”
The MVP boost is probably moot, since Zusi is already on record as saying if he somehow won the award he’d give it to the heavy favorite, San Jose juggernaut Chris Wondolowski. Yet his professional career has followed his path in college; he didn’t crack the starting lineup regularly for Kansas City until last year, his third pro season, and even Cirovski is surprised by his skyrocketing progress since then.
Zusi, 26, is one of four players carrying a yellow card into the World Cup qualifier Friday against Antigua & Barbuda, so Coach Jurgen Klinsmann may be wary of playing him with another vital match looming Tuesday against Guatemala in Zusi’s home stadium. Yet in less than a year he’s established a significant presence.
A debut for the national team in January and an excellent performance last month against Jamaica in Columbus represents remarkable progress. “I think his ascension to the full national team and the impact that he’s having is a pleasant surprise,” said Cirovski, who also notes the versatility Zusi showed in college has translated well to SKC as well as the USA.
“Our system in fairly similar,” says Zusi of the ideas of Coach Klinsmann. “Jurgen is trying to implement that high pressure and how quickly can you get ball back when you lose it. That’s very similar to how we play in Kansas City.”
In the 4-3-3 formation favored by SKC coach Peter Vermes, Zusi has played a variety of midfield roles as well as up top on both wings. It was as a right-sided mid that he helped dismantle Jamaica in Columbus, and on a squad overloaded with central players who don’t look comfortable out wide, his blend of abilities make him rare if not unique.
“When you look at his technical ability, you could see in day one, training [session] one that he’s well-balanced in both feet, he can hit the ball, he’s got great technique, he’s got a good shot, he can dribble,” says SKC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin. “All of those pieces were in place, which is great, because it’s not the case with a lot of college players coming out, and it’s very difficult to build those components of the game up.
“So he had a solid foundation technically. It was just a matter of him gaining the resiliency to be able to function physically and be able to handle the beating he was going to take as a player with his ability on the ball.”
Though like many college players, Zusi needed greater levels of strength and endurance to handle the pro level, he never lacked for desire. An appearance at Cirovski’s summer camp during his high school years convinced the coach to recruit him.
“He came to our camp exhausted from regional camps and games but for three days busted his butt,” says Cirovski. “That’s when I really decided, ‘This is a kid I want.’
“You look into Graham’s eyes, you see that there’s a lot more going on inside, and it was just a matter of getting that confidence to come out. It happened with us really the third and fourth year, and I think it’s happened in Kansas City the third and fourth year.”
Exhaustion is a possibility during the next seven weeks, as Zusi will rejoin SKC Wednesday for the end of the regular season and perhaps a deep run in the playoffs. So far there’s been no problem concentrating on club while playing for country, and vice versa.
“That part is very clear to me,” he says. “If you’re not performing well for your club, you’re not going to get your opportunity for the national team. All of my focus is with my club. When those national-team games come around I can switch my focus over.”
Zavagnin feels the game in Columbus had a similar effect on Zusi’s psyche as did a league match in Dallas last year. Zusi scored two goals, including a very Beckham-esque free kick that got SKC rolling after a rough start that included a 10-game road trip prior to the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park.
“That was the moment I think he understood he had the ability to take the initiative within the game,” Zavagnin says of the victory in Dallas. “More recently you look at the national team game in Columbus. That was a mature performance and one that I think he’d been building up to. Not to put too much pressure on the guy, but he can be an even better player and go further in the game.”