There's humbleness to Graham Zusi that belies his artistry. On the field, he is respected as a risk-taker, as an author of visionary passing and stunning strikes. But off it, he's calm. He's calculated. Never high, never low.
Zusi, perhaps, could get away with a bit of arrogance. Running the show for first-place Sporting Kansas City, Zusi leads MLS in assists. He's an All-Star and an MVP candidate. And he may be the key to the U.S. national team's attack during an upcoming pair of critical World Cup qualifiers.
But the 26-year-old seems almost embarrassed by admiration, shuffling to avoid discussion of his success. The modesty he brought to the league in 2009, as a second-round pick out of the University of Maryland, never left.
"He's realistic," Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. "He knows that as much as you work hard to get to where you are, in a fleeting moment, it can also go away. I think that's why he is very determined, he's very focused."
It's an approach that has served Zusi well. Before recording five goals and seven assists in his breakout 2011 campaign, the Florida native started just nine games total in his first two MLS seasons, biding his time on a veteran Kansas City side.
Even when Zusi's minutes were scarce, Kansas City twice protected him in the expansion draft. He was a project the club was committed to seeing through. As Vermes put it, "We saw what could be."
"It was a great learning experience," Zusi said. "All I could really ask for was to come to training every day and try to continue to get better. They were constantly telling me just to be patient and not get frustrated."
The persistence paid off. This season, Zusi has five goals and 15 assists in 30 matches. Now, he is a likely starter for the U.S. at Antigua and Barbuda on Friday and against Guatemala in his home stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park, on Tuesday to wrap the semifinal stage of World Cup qualifying.
Expected to breeze through its CONCACAF group, the U.S. finds itself at just 2-1-1, tied for first with Guatemala and Jamaica. Two teams will advance from the four-nation pod to next year's six-squad final phase.
With U.S. all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan sidelined by a knee injury, the door has opened for Zusi to grasp a creative role on the right flank, where he thrived during his surprise first start in qualifying, a 1-0 win over Jamaica on Sept. 11.
"I want to improve upon my previous performance," he said. "I can't be satisfied with just being here. I want to continue to be better and really prove that I should be here. I can't get complacent whatsoever."
By international standards, Zusi is a late bloomer. He wasn't a part of the youth national team setup. He didn't leave college early. He barely played to start his MLS career.
Since debuting with the national team in January, though, he has impressed U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann with his playmaking in an American midfield dominated by more defensive mentalities.
"Graham is on a very good path," Klinsmann said. "Over the last couple of camps, he has become more confident. He's realizing that he can compete with all these guys, he's realizing he can do certain things and has qualities. He has a great shot, and he's technically very gifted."
Added Zusi: "As you continue to be around the guys and learn each other's tendencies and be more comfortable on the field with people you're usually not playing with, that can build confidence."
The growing poise is a familiar story with Zusi. As Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski recalled, the player always was an integral piece for the Terrapins during his four years in College Park. But it wasn't until Zusi's senior season that he truly grabbed the reins, claiming Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors at the College Cup as the Terps won the second national title of his tenure.
If one thing about Zusi has been established, it's that he has the mindset worth investing in.
"He's such a nice and respectful person that I think he almost needs to get to the point where he gets permission to exert himself into the game," Cirovski said. "He's a very sweet person, very humble. I think he's playing with an aggressiveness now that is taking his game to another level."
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