When USA’s Sporting Kansas City winger Graham Zusi poached a fateful goal against Panama that kept Mexico from tumbling out of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying, he became an unlikely hero. Mexican fans have since embraced the American player, and dubbed him Saint Zusi.
It’s been a banner year for the player, who’s scored twice and assisted two more for Klinsmann’s Stars and Stripes. The last national team goal he scored has become the stuff of legend – and even reverence – in Mexico. He scored it in stoppage time against hosts Panama, helping the Americans turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory.
USA had already secured qualification to Brazil 2014 before the game kicked off, but the win knocked Panama out of fourth place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal and put Mexico into a play-off with Oceania champions New Zealand. El Tri went on to win that series and Zusi, who only has 18 caps to his name, became a hero with Mexican supporters who usually hold American players in contempt rather than esteem.
It’s been such a busy year for club and country.
“It's funny the way it panned out,” Zusi told FIFA.com. “For so many Mexican supporters to be so thankful to the US team and players, that's not something you see every day.
“You've got to feel for Panama,” he added, recalling the sight of the Canalero players in tears, pounding the Rommel Fernandez pitch in desperation. “For them to be that close to Brazil, it was a heart-breaking end. It must have been tough.”
But Zusi and the American team weren’t thinking about what Mexico had to do or what Panama had to do. “We were just worrying about ourselves,” said Zusi.
Aside from earning him legions of fans south of the USA border, the goal against Panama didn’t do Zusi’s chances of playing in his first World Cup any harm. The midfielder must be considered among the possible outside candidates to be on the plane with the national team heading to Brazil next summer. “I'm going to do whatever I possibly can to give myself the best chance of being on that team.”
So far that’s meant staying Stateside instead of making a move to Europe. Zusi, who has been in MLS with Kansas City since 2009, signed a four-year contract extension this summer. “I didn't have any solid options of going over to Europe,” he said. “My development as a player is increasing steadily while I'm here. I have the best chance of being on that US squad by staying put."
MLS title on the line
If Sporting Kansas City manage to capture Major League Soccer’s 2013 title on Saturday against Real Salt Lake, the club’s fans might nominate the wide man for sainthood once again. The one-off game decides the USA top flight’s annual champion and victory would cap a memorable and whirlwind year for the wide man. Zusi’s wing play has been key to the once unfashionable Midwestern side’s success as they stand on the cusp of a second American crown.
“It’s been such a busy year for club and country. In our industry, busy is good. And it's not over,” said Zusi, eager to add a second championship trophy to Kansas City’s cabinet. “We're not looking back now at how good the year has been, we just want to finish off strong.”
Zusi, 27, was named to his second straight MLS Best XI earlier this week and has played a major role in Kansas City's resurgence from his perch out on the right side of midfield. He’s set up team-mates and scored crucial goals for the club on their impressive run to the league’s perennial showpiece. A player who’s already won two University-level national championships, Zusi has grown to savour the sweet taste of success.
“That's the top of the mountain,” said Zusi, not the fastest flank player in the league, but one who caught the eye of USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s with his keen vision. “It would be mean everything to get a championship here."
SKC for short, the club calls Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas home. The state-of-the-art ground, which was recently used for World Cup qualifying matches, seats just 18,467 fans, but the noise it generates can be deafening. That could help swing the balance against 2009 champions Salt Lake on Saturday.
“It's an incredible experience [at the stadium]," Zusi said. “It’s second to none. As players we realise how lucky we are to play in front of that week in and week out. It's certainly deafening at times. We truly have a home-field advantage when we're playing there. This Saturday is going to be no different.”