Sporting KC has been in this position before. Their first year after the team rebranded from the Kansas City Wizards, Sporting KC was in the Eastern Conference championship against the Houston Dynamo. They had gone from worst to first throughout the season, and were one game away from the MLS Cup final. But a 0-2 loss at home saw their season end one game too soon.
Two years later, they find themselves in the exact same position. But something feels different about the game tonight than the one two years ago. Sporting has gone from a team that had a Cinderella story season to one of the most dominate teams in MLS.
While soccer is a game that requires all 11 players to play well on the pitch for a team to succeed, there has been one player on the Sporting KC roster that has been instrumental to their rise in dominance. That player is US international Graham Zusi. His rise from bench player to one of the best midfielders in MLS has been one of the better stories over the past few years.
Before the 2011 season, Zusi had a handful of starts, but he mainly featured as a substitute for the team. With Sporting KC getting a new stadium and a new identity, it was the beginning of a new generation of soccer in Kansas City. And Zusi has been the face of that new generation for the past three seasons.
To any Sporting KC fan, the beginning of the 2011 season is one that is tough to look back on. Kansas City began the season on a 10 game road trip while the team waited for Sporting Park, then known as LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, to open. In those 10 games, Sporting won one game, drew three, and lost six games. They had four points after 10 games, and found themselves in last place in the league.
Zusi had started all of those games in midfield, but his first breakout game came against FC Dallas, the game after the home opener against Chicago Fire. Zusi scored twice, including a 45-yard free kick that surprised every person watching that game. Zusi found himself in the MLS spotlight for the first time, and hasn’t left it since that day.
Over the next two and a half seasons, Zusi has become not just a household name with soccer fans in the United States, but is now known around the world. He has become a regular starter for the United States national team, scoring goals and providing assists while playing upfront for the Yanks.
His stoppage time equalizer against Panama in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers made him a hero to Mexico national team fans. His goal allowed Mexico to finish fourth in the qualifying and force a playoff against New Zealand, which they won to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Local KC Spanish radio station La Gran D even awarded him with a few gifts, and nicknamed him “San Zusi.”
That brings us to tonight. The game against Houston tonight is arguably the biggest game in their short time as Sporting KC. While Kansas City has been here in the past, MLS Cup feels so much closer than ever.
With a win, Sporting KC would go to the final, which would be played at Sporting Park, and they would play either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake. Why is tonight Zusi’s night? Because this game needs someone to step up to create chances, and even score goals.
Zusi has proven in the past that he can play that role. U.S. national team manager Jürgen Klinsmann has called on international players in the MLS playoffs to show why they deserve to be on the team. Zusi is the best US international still in the playoffs with the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders out of the picture.
Tonight is the night that Graham Zusi goes from one of the best midfielders in MLS to MLS legend. Games like tonight are where memories are made. These are the games in 20 years where fans look back and think, “do you remember Zusi’s performance against Houston in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final?”
This is your night, Mr. Zusi.