Graham Zusi, C.J. Sapong head into winter as champions after MLS triumph

Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi, left, and Matt Besler, right, celebrate as they carry the MLS Cup after their 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup soccer final match in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, left, and Matt Besler, right, celebrate as they carry the MLS Cup after their 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup soccer final match in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For all of the glory Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong helped bring to the American heartland Saturday, the Sporting Kansas City duo’s exploits have given the D.C. area no small amount of pride as well.

Roaming the flanks of Kansas City’s three-man front line, Zusi and Sapong — products of the University of Maryland and James Madison University, respectively — were the driving force behind Sporting’s attack in the MLS Cup victory over Real Salt Lake.

SEE ALSO: D.C. United acquires veteran Davy Arnaud from Montreal

As Zusi provided creativity from his post on the left side, Sapong offered his brand of in-your-face skill and physicality on the right. Without Zusi’s assist late in regulation or Sapong’s critical shootout conversion, Kansas City would have dropped the tense encounter, which finished 1-1 and was only won after 10 rounds of penalty kicks.

Instead, Zusi and Sapong found themselves drenching the Sporting locker room with champagne and beer that night. As Zusi put it, “Nothing feels better than a little champagne in the eyeball.”

For Zusi, who played at Maryland from 2005 to 2008, the title capped a year that hardly could have gone better for the Orlando, Fla., native.

After breaking through as a U.S. national team regular late in 2012, Zusi made 12 appearances for the Americans this year as they clinched qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He also became an inadvertent hero south of the border — dubbed “San Zusi” — when his goal in October knocked out Panama and kept Mexico’s World Cup qualification hopes alive.

In MLS, meanwhile, Zusi notched six goals and eight assists en route to his second straight all-league selection. And Saturday, he added an MLS crown to his pair of NCAA championships.

“This year has been a year I’ll look back on and remember really forever,” Zusi said. “It’s been a great year for club and country. At the beginning of years you kind of set a list of goals of what you want to accomplish, and we’ve pretty much done it all.”

Sapong’s road to starting the MLS Cup wasn’t so smooth. Born in Manassas, Va., the 2011 first-round pick claimed Rookie of the Year honors after four standout seasons at James Madison, then made his U.S. national team debut in January 2012.

But as Kansas City’s personnel grew stronger, Sapong slipped down the depth chart. His 25 games, 16 starts and four goals in 2013 marked career lows.

“I didn’t get as many minutes,” Sapong said, “but I did get to face a lot of challenges and things that helped me grow as a person and a player.”

At no point did Sapong face more adversity than over the summer, when he made just one start in a three-month span and was loaned to third-division Orlando City for five matches.

But Sapong seized his opportunity following the September sale of forward Kei Kamara to English club Middlesbrough. The 24-year-old started 10 of Sporting’s final 12 matches through the regular season and playoffs, scoring in the Eastern Conference final win over the Houston Dynamo.

“It just made me realize that everything isn’t all sugar and gold, and helped me just deal with adversity,” Sapong said of the demotion. “I came in my first two years and I was kind of regarded highly by fans and coaches and stuff, and you can easily fall into a comfort zone when it happens.”

While Sapong has plenty of work to do before he returns to the national team picture, Zusi figures to be in camp with the U.S. when it convenes in January, though he acknowledges there is “definitely the potential for a loan situation” that would send him to a European club until MLS resumes in March.

At the moment, however, Zusi is ready for a few weeks off. After winning the College Cup with Maryland in 2005 and 2008 — claiming Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors as a senior — he is happy to enter the offseason as a champion once more.

“Each one is pretty exclusive in itself,” Zusi said, reflecting on his college and MLS titles. “I don’t like to compare games or winnings or anything like that. This, at the moment, it’s great. Each one had its extraordinary moments and feelings, and hopefully this isn’t the last one to come.”

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