He’s become the heartbeat of Sporting Kansas City, and if the Houston Dynamo have any chance of advancing to MLS Cup in Sunday’s Eastern Conference championship game, they know that Graham Zusi has to be contained.
Zusi’s stock continues to rise during these playoffs, just a few months after Sporting manager Peter Vermes essentially handed the reins of the team to his 25-year-old playmaker. His two assists in the Eastern Conference semifinal series second leg against Colorado put the tie out of reach.
“Graham Zusi has had a breakout year,” Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall said. “I think he’s got to be one of the guys for breakout player of the year. He’s been awesome for them.”
Since becoming a regular starter this summer, Zusi has shown leadership and personality that few likely expected from the Florida native after two largely unremarkable MLS seasons. He continuously roams the entire midfield for Sporting KC, seeking the ball at all times to launch the attack.
“He always seems to get on the ball, always seems to get in dangerous spots,” Houston left back Corey Ashe said. “You’ve got to know where he is at all times. Very good player and especially good on dead-ball situations. So we want to limit how many fouls we give him, especially in our final third. He’s a dangerous player, and if we keep our eyes on him, we should be good.”
If opposing teams key in on the Dynamo's Brad Davis, highlighting his dangerous left foot on set pieces, the same can be said of Zusi, who’s a natural right-footed player. Like Davis, he handles virtually every dead-ball situation for KC.
“He’s confident on the ball and great on set pieces,” Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said of Zusi. “He’s an important player for them.”
On Wednesday night against Colorado, Zusi delivered two free kicks that were headed home for Kansas City goals in a comfortable 2-0 victory over Colorado. He was credited with five goals and seven assists on the regular season, both by far career highs. On Sunday, the man that will likely be charged with containing Zusi is Dynamo holding midfielder Adam Moffat, who expects to cross paths with him on multiple occasions throughout the match.
“He moves around a lot and is one of those guys I enjoy playing against,” Moffat said on Friday. “I enjoy chasing those guys around and closing them down and stopping them from getting going. … We’ll look to stop him.”
Sporting is a tough enough team to deal with, given its three-forward alignment. Sprinkle in an in-form Zusi pulling the strings, and you’ll understand why the Dynamo have changed formations to deal with their weapons in the past.
“You go down [the list of] their offensive players, and everyone’s good and everyone’s dangerous,” Hall said. “You can go down the line. We have to stay organized and keep them in front of us and try to contain them. They’re an excellent team.”