So now it’s official. Officially official…
It’s a drum I started beating early last season after watching a few Sporting Kansas City games. It was so obvious. And I kept pounding that thing all season.
Graham Zusi is the best player on the team.
Not only is he the best player, he also happens to occupy the center midfielder position, a spot that can dictate the entire flow of a game and determine the personality of a squad.
As the 2011 MLS regular season neared its end, I cast my media ballot in Zusi’s favor for team MVP, though he ended up losing to Jimmy Nielsen, who had a solid year as well between the pipes.
But now it’s not just us die hard SKC fans that know about Zusi.
Zusi was just voted the Breakout Player of the Year by MLSsoccer.com and was picked up by the U.S. Men’s National Team to train for its January camp.
So what makes Graham Zusi so effective? It’s certainly not his blazing speed nor his athleticism, though he is solid in both categories. He’s not all that physically imposing, listed generously at 5’10” and 160 pounds.
The first thing most casual observers would probably notice is his lashing right foot. Zusi is a great ball-striker, both in terms of serving crosses into the box, and long range shooting. Who can forget the 50 yard bomb he surprised Kevin Hartman with in Dallas? Even more impressive than that laser was his 35 yard cannon that beat the Portland Timbers at LIVESTRONG.
And Zusi took most of SKC’s corners and set pieces, both of which require, more than anything else, consistency and a refined foot with the ability to curl and bend the ball to a spot on the field the size of a stop sign.
So yes, Zusi’s right boot is a deadly weapon. But perhaps his bigger asset lies in his foot skills and awareness on the pitch.
As a center midfielder, Zusi is on the ball maybe more than anyone else. So you have to have a guy you can trust to make correct decisions, a guy who can push and pull the opposing defenses to create space for other Sporting players to run into. Sometimes you need this guy to hold the ball a little bit, to dribble it around or hold it up.
These things often go unnoticed by the newer soccer fans, but Zusi does these subtle small-seeming things with an ease and calm that we haven’t seen here in KC in awhile. He doesn’t try to beat defenders with his speed or muscle- instead, Zusi is smart and shifty, and he rarely gets dispossessed. I mean, think of KC’s previous mainstay at center mid, Davy Arnaud. Is there anything calm or subtle about his game? Not really.
What Davy gives you is high energy hustle, maybe a reckless challenge or two, and OK passing.
Zusi’s game, on the other hand, is so much more refined, and is in the mold of a true holding midfielder who is comfortable on the ball, who can keep defenders on the back foot, and who can ping accurate long range crosses.
As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sporting started their amazing run of good form right about the same time that Arnaud went out to have sports hernia surgery. Arnaud’s absence on the field, both physically and mentally (he was very influential, and was the captain), allowed Zusi some room to breathe, to do things his way, to really blossom into the type of player that head coach Peter Vermes has always suspected he could be.
"Each year that I’ve been here, I’ve protected [Zusi] when we have expansion drafts,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com’s Andrew Wiebe. “With him not playing a lot, that’s kind of unusual. But I protected him because I’d seen the quality he has, and I didn’t want to lose that.”
Props to Vermes for recognizing Zusi’s talents even when he wasn’t playing much. But now we need to lock Zusi down long term. Players like him don’t come around very often, and at only 25 years old, he can be part of the team’s foundation for years to come.