Don’t know Graham Zusi yet?
Well, you will soon.
Sporting KC’s firestarter will soon be featured on a billboard in downtown KC, flowing locks and all. So maybe you’ll recognize the growing star next time you catch him out at the Crossroads taking in a show, or hiking around a local park.
Well, after barely playing his first two seasons in the league, he was named the MLS Breakout Player of the Year in 2011, leading Sporting Kansas City to the Eastern Conference finals with his heady midfield play.
He has a lashing right foot that embarassed several opposing goalkeepers last year, none more so than former KC handyman Kevin Hartman, who saw Zusi bash a 50 yarder into the back of his net.
I caught up with Graham in between SKC’s training sessions in Arizona to talk about this year’s squad, Snoop Dogg, and why Sporting’s going to be just fine without Davy Arnaud and Omar Bravo…
It’s going very well, training sessions have been very productive and obviously we’ve won both our games so far so that’s all you can ask.
Are any of the rookies standing out?
The learning curve is pretty good for a lot of those young guys. I’m not sure if I could choose one of them specifically but a lot of the new guys are doing well to keep up with the pace.
How has the club changed since you were drafted in 2009?
Besides the obvious like the rebranding and stadium, the commitment from the players to really kind of buy into a specific system has been incredible, I’d say probably in the past two years. Peter and the coaching staff have a pretty specific outline of what they want to accomplish, and I guess the players, the coaching staff and the whole organization has really bought into that. You can see that with the stadium that we built. They left no stone unturned when finishing that up, and it’s really an organization that is committed to excellence. And I think that’s been very apparent in the last couple years.
Why did it take a while for guys to buy in to Peter Vermes’ system?
I’m not sure if it was — It might not have been the same people that are here now. My first couple years the team was changing constantly. There were a lot of new faces and I think that our staff was kind of looking for a group that they maybe wanted to build a team around. And I think the group now, that is what you see. Like I said, the core group returning from last year is a very strong group and we’re continuously trying to build onto that. It shows in the new signings we have – Bobby Convey, Nagamura, Jacob Peterson – so we’re constantly trying to get better but there’s definitely a core group of guys that has really instilled a very specific kind of game plan and a way to play. And these new guys coming in now are just adding onto that. In the past it was almost like they were trying to overhaul the club entirely. You saw almost an entire new team each of the first couple years I was here.
Did you ever think it would take you over two plus seasons in the MLS to cement yourself as a starter?
Obviously you want to come in and make an impact immediately, but realistically in my head I knew it was going to take some time for me to, I guess you could say, cement a spot. I don’t know if you’re ever cemented in a spot. I knew that I was going to have to bide my time and I’ve had experience with that at each of the levels I’ve played at. The first year, maybe two years you’re really learning as much as possible and I think that’s what I was doing. Watching some of the veterans and just trying to take in as much as I could.
With Davy Arnaud and Omar Bravo out of the picture, do you have more of an opportunity to impress your style on the club?
Yeah, I guess so. Those players, Davy and Omar, were definitely part of this team. And they bought into this system 100 percent. And it’s not like we got rid of those guys because they weren’t involved in the team or that they didn’t have what it took because that’s not the case at all. Both those players were great players and great leaders. I don’t think we pushed them away at all; they just went on to their next chapter in their life, soccer-wise.
But I guess since they did leave, we got a couple new guys to fill their spots. Bobby’s probably going to be playing that outside left wing where Omar was playing, and I don’t think we’ll lose a lot of speed or attack on that side at all. I think Bobby’s going to fill up that space very well. And then with Paulo in the middle, he’s a very experienced player and very crafty on the ball, a very smooth player who can help us out in the middle as well.
I think it’s not so much that we’re changing style very much. We know what we want to accomplish and we’re just trying to fill in the little bits and pieces to accomplish that.
Has a team captain been named yet?
We haven’t named a captain yet.
Could you see yourself in that role, wearing the armband?
I don’t know. I’m not sure who’s in the running, but for myself at least I’ve been trying to have more of a leadership role. This team is a fairly young team. I’m 25 years old now, it’s time for me to show that kind of role especially since I’m in the middle of the field most of the time, and the link between defense and attack.
You’ve recently been called up to the USMNT, and scored your first international goal. Can you compare the coaching styles of Peter Vermes and Jurgen Klinsmann?
Klinsmann is — you don’t hear from him very much. He stands back and observes quite a bit. You don’t hear him stopping training and giving a commentary about what he thinks. He lets the play go quite a bit and then at the end he’ll say what he thinks. A lot of the times it’s just him sitting back there watching and you don’t get a ton of feedback from him.
Peter on the other hand, he’s a vocal guy. He has no problem telling you what he thinks. If he sees something during a training session he’ll stop and let you know what he thinks or if something good happens he’ll stop and let us know that’s how it’s done as well.
Pete is a little more vocal that Jurgen in training sessions at least.
What do you do in KC in the off season other than soccer?
I was in KC most of the offseason. There’s a group of guys that kind of formed a little workout group together, so pretty much every day we were hitting the gym. We were trying to get away a little bit from the game of soccer, just to kind of clear our heads a little. So we played quite a bit of basketball, we played some racquetball, a little tennis. So it was just a fun way to stay active but kind of get your mind off the game of soccer.
Other than that, I’m a big outdoorsy guy. I love taking hikes and going camping so I went out to Colorado a couple times in the offseason, got away, did the whole mountain thing, went on same hikes, did some camping. I love that kind of thing.
Are you into the KC music scene at all?
I go to concerts as much as possible and KC has a great concert scene, there are always some great bands coming through. The last concert I saw was Matt & Kim, I think at the Beaumont. I went to the concerts at LIVESTRONG Park, Farm Aid and the Buzz Beach Ball. I actually went and saw Snoop Dogg at Crossroads, it was fun, and he played a lot of his old stuff. I like a wide variety of music; I’m not specific to anything. Oh, you know which one I liked a lot was the Rebelution and Ben Harper show at the Crossroads, as well. Rebelution was awesome, really good. I like a lot of Ben Harper’s older stuff, the newer stuff wasn’t quite growing on me.
You grew up in Florida and went to college in Maryland. What do you miss most about the east coast or Florida?
The beach. I spent a ton of time out on the beach growing up as a boarder. So here I am smack dab in the middle of the country, which is a little unfortunate for me being a beach-head. And of course I have a lot of family that I miss, so that would be the two biggest things.
There you have it KCC. Pay attention to this kid, he’s the real deal and we’ll be lucky to keep him around for a few more years.