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Zusi's career a win for US soccer

Leander Schaerlaeckens: USMNT understudies need to step up.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: USMNT understudies need to step up.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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In Greek mythology, Zeus was the father of gods and men, spawning a slew of other gods and heroes with Hera and Dione as the master of sky and thunder.

To Mexico, Sporting Kansas City and United States men's national team midfielder Graham Zusi -- nicknamed Zeus by teammates and fans -- is more saintly than god-like. He offered the Mexicans a ray of hope with his heroics on their behalf against Panama in the USA’s final 2014 World Cup qualifier back in October, when his late equalizer against the Canaleros gifted them a spot in the playoffs, at Panama’s expense. Following that reprieve, Mexico easily dispatched New Zealand and booked their place in Brazil.

“When I got back to Kansas City, there was a small group of Mexican supporters who came out to practice the next day and they dubbed me San Zusi,” Zusi told FOX Soccer. “That was kind of funny. The most interaction I’ve gotten is through Twitter, constantly getting messages from supporters. Most of it’s in Spanish so I can’t read a lot of it.”

“It’s all pretty comical to me,” says Zusi, in a slow and careful tone. “They’re obviously very appreciative and it’s funny to see so much support coming from the Mexican supporters, that very rarely happens.”

He brought them joy, while simultaneously moshing on all those Panamanian hearts. “Honestly, you’ve got to feel for them,” says Zusi. “I couldn’t help but feel bad with the way things ended up for them. They had a good run in qualifying and especially in that game they went from being absolutely elated, thinking they had punched their ticket, to having to go to the other absolute extreme. It was sad."

Zusi added: “But our objective and our focus was purely on ourselves. That’s the way the game goes sometimes. We’re a bunch of guys out there playing for positions. At the end of the day we want to be on that squad for Brazil and I’m no different.”

So, Zusi became a symbol south of the border, a beacon in the night and a harbinger of a fraught El Tri campaign ultimately come good. But he’s a symbol of more things. He’s a poster boy of the strides made by Major League Soccer as well.

Zusi entered the league the conventional way, spending four years at the University of Maryland, and winning two national titles, before the Kansas City Wizards drafted him in the second round. He fought his way into the team, grew, made January camp with the national team in 2012, led the league in assists in 2012, and became a senior national team regular during the Hegaxonal.

That’s all fairly straightforward fare. What sets Zusi apart is that after he made his international breakthrough, he stuck around. He was the first of a wave of young national teamers -- followed by Sporting teammate Matt Besler and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez – who eschewed the chance to become free agents and try their luck across the pond.

Sporting used the league’s new retention fund to lock Zusi up when his rookie deal wound down, just as it did with Besler. He is, after all, the very essence of what MLS appreciates in a player: He’s American, home-grown, made his name within the league, an international, and, above all, that rare technical player the league believes will help elevate the level of play to a higher plane.

Re-upping was an easy decision, argues Zusi. “To be honest, there weren’t really any options,” he says. “There weren’t really any teams out there looking to snatch me up. Then also, staying in MLS at that point where I was, was my best option for getting consistent playing time and good training and also a hard competition.”

Zusi represents another kind of paradigm: the Klinsmann player. Since taking over as United States head coach more than two years ago, Jurgen Klinsmann has nurtured a near-obsessive devotion to craft in his players and, unlike predecessors, has been unafraid to cast MLS players in prominent roles. As such, Zusi becomes both the beneficiary and the archetype of these policies.

With modest physical gifts, Zusi has honed his technique to be able to compete the only way you can: through repetition. He does more, regularly staying late after practice. “The work I put in every offseason, it’s an everyday thing for me,” he says. “I put forth a huge amount of effort to get myself in the best shape and sharpness for the upcoming season. Really, I don’t enjoy taking days off at all.”

“[MLS] seems like an extremely long season but if you look at some of the other guys in Europe, theirs is even longer, they’re playing more games,” Zusi says, echoing a Klinsmann sentiment. “They have that on their side a little bit so I feel like I’m falling behind the crowd so I do as much on my own as I can to keep up.”

He is, ultimately, the product of ambition. And if he represents everything MLS would like to be about, a league with which he shares a mutual appreciation, the 27-year-old Zusi nevertheless would like to cast a covetous glance at Europe at some point. Last offseason, Zusi practiced with West Ham United of the Barclays Premier League. “I’m always looking to push myself as far as possible,” he says. “So I’m keeping my eyes open for any opportunity that I can get.”

But that isn’t to say that any old European offer will do, as it often did for MLS players of the past. “I’m not going to go over to Europe just because it’s Europe,” says Zusi. “I want to be at a club that fits my style of play and where I can compete for a role in that team, where I’m getting consistent playing time and getting better as a player. I’m not going to go over there just because of the name of a league or for a paycheck.”

“It’s not really about the offer,” Zusi adds. “It’s where I feel that my game can grow the most at this point. And right now, that’s in MLS.”

That, ultimately, is a major victory for Major League Soccer.

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