From the outside, Graham Zusi's career appears marked by two significant leaps forward: last year for club, this year for country.
The Sporting Kansas City star prefers to see it as a more gradual upward arc that reflects his years of work.
“I'm excited that it did happen, but at the other end, it's the amount of work that I've put into this game,” Zusi said on Monday, before training with the US national team for Tuesday night's World Cup qualifier against Guatemala (7 pm ET; ESPN2/TeleFutura; LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com). “I'm thrilled to see it paying off at this time. I've been playing the game for my entire life, 26 years of work. You can see the end result – well, not the end result, but it's paying off.”
Still, it's safe to describe Zusi's rise with the Yanks as nearly immediate. He's gone from his first cap in January, to his first goal one match after that, to being a key part of Jurgen Klinsmann's team in the group stage of qualifying.
And while he does acknowledge that, Zusi doesn't like to dwell on how quickly things have progressed for him this year.
“It certainly did happen fast, but I can't get caught up in the whirlwind of all of it,” he said. “I can't lose my focus on trying to improve every session I go out and every game I go out.”
That's because in international soccer, today's mainstay can turn into tomorrow's missing person.
“I think you always know what it's going to cost you, and that's unrelenting, every day going out there and trying to be the best you can be and trying to be better than your competition,” he said. “If you're not putting in that work, you can see how quickly it can be taken away from you.”
Zusi's surge to prominence, he said, actually began in Sporting's offseason, when he stayed in Kansas City for intense fitness work with several teammates.
“January was a time where I was probably coming in the fittest of my career, and I saw the hard work pay off,” he said. “From there on, I could see every session that I get can be an opportunity to improve. All season, I've been kind of working toward that.”
Zusi, who leads MLS with 15 assists, has started the United States' last two qualifiers, both victories, and assisted on Eddie Johnson's first goal in last Friday's clutch 2-1 victory at Antigua and Barbuda.
But his success with the US and with Sporting KC – who won the US Open Cup in August and lead the Eastern Conference by three points with two matches left in the regular season – don't have him mulling a move abroad. While he acknowledges Klinsmann's desire to have American players at the highest possible club level, Zusi said he's in a good place at present.
“You're always looking to get the best training, the best competition, that you can possibly get to,” he said. “Right now, I think for me that's here in KC. You're always striving for the next level, but he wants his players playing. If I'm in a different environment and I'm sitting on the bench, I don't think that's best for me. So I think my situation here, right now, is going to improve my play the most.”
Zusi's shift to a wide role for Sporting has also helped his performance at the international level, he said – and vice versa.
“When I go back to Kansas City, my play out wide here can make me more comfortable,” he said. “Then, in Kansas City, that play can translate to here. That's become a new position for me, but I'm enjoying it.”
Zusi's also enjoying the prospect of playing in of a sold-out Livestrong Sporting Park, in front of what's sure to be a big contingent of Sporting fans.
“The excitement of playing with the national team is one thing,” he said, “but to be able to play in front of your home fans is another.”