KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From his room in the U.S. national soccer team’s hotel, Graham Zusi can see his apartment building.
“I literally live three minutes from here,” he said, smiling. “It’s a cruel tease.”
There is no question, though, where the former Maryland Terrapin has preferred to stay.
While the distance between home and hotel is short, Zusi had to travel a wide expanse to settle, at least temporarily, at a prime address. In the blur of 18 months, the attacking midfielder has risen from a Sporting Kansas City reserve to a candidate for MLS’s most valuable player award. He has also gone from a B-list prospect in the national team pool less than a year ago to a starter in critical World Cup qualifiers.
Zusi, 26, assisted on the first goal in an uncomfortable 2-1 victory at Antigua & Barbuda on Friday and likely will remain in the lineup Tuesday night against Guatemala in the last match of semifinal-round group play.
After laboring through the first five games, the Americans (3-1-1) almost certainly will need to win or draw at Livestrong Sporting Park to advance to the final round of regional qualifying and retain hope of reaching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The fact that Zusi has a part in this pursuit was unforeseen by anyone in U.S. circles. He was a very good college player, helping the Terrapins win national titles in 2005 and 2008. At the College Cup during his senior year, he scored the only goals in both the semifinal against St. John’s and the final vs. North Carolina.
MLS teams, however, weren’t convinced his college game would translate to the next level. Selected in the second round of the MLS draft (23rd overall), Zusi was a borderline prospect.
“Graham got lucky to get into an MLS environment where they were going to be patient and appreciate all of his tools,” Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski said. “He is humble to a fault. He doesn’t have a lot of swagger. He needs to feel comfortable and for people to believe in him. Then he starts to think: ‘It’s okay for me to assert myself.’”
Although Zusi started just nine times in his first two MLS campaigns, Coach Peter Vermes remained high on him. Before the 2011 season, Vermes created space for Zusi in the starting lineup. Zusi responded with five goals and seven assists in 25 league starts.
What stood out was his confidence to challenge defenders and create opportunities.
“When he has to be the protagonist, he can’t stand back and let things come to him,” Vermes said. Early in his career, “he didn’t have that mentality because he didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”
This season Zusi has five goals and a league-high 15 assists for a Kansas City squad that leads the Eastern Conference with two games left in the regular season.
Zusi’s breakthrough season caught the U.S. coaching staff’s eye. At the annual January training camp, a get-together designed primarily for MLS players, Zusi showed that his attacking dynamics could work on the international stage. Four days after debuting against Venezuela, he scored in a friendly at Panama. Zusi was a late cut from the roster that began the Cup qualifying process in June but returned late in the summer.
With Landon Donovan, the U.S. career scoring leader, sidelined for a home qualifier against Jamaica last month, Zusi was influential and dangerous starting on the right side.
U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann’s message, Zusi said, was that “I shouldn’t try to change my game from what got me here. I never thought I couldn’t do it, but when you come into the national team, especially when you are the new guy, you try to play as simple as possible. I didn’t want to take any risks.”
Said Klinsmann: “He’s realizing that he can compete with all these guys. He’s realizing he can do certain things and has qualities.”
Sporting Kansas City supporters have witnessed those qualities all season. They hope to see them again Tuesday, only this time with Zusi in a U.S. uniform.
“It has always been a goal to reach this point, but the way it happened, it was fast,” he said. “I wouldn’t have believed it. I was always working toward it, and to see it happen, it feels good because the amount of work that went into it was enormous.”