Among the most accomplished players in Sporting Kansas City history, it’s fair to say that defender Graham Zusi is at or near the top of the list.
The versatile veteran and former U.S. international will enter his 13th MLS campaign with Sporting in 2021, becoming the first player to spend that many seasons with the club. Since joining in 2009, he has won four major championships, racked up a team-record seven MLS All-Star nods, led Sporting to the playoffs on nine occasions, and represented the U.S. at a FIFA World Cup.
Not a bad résumé, to say the least.
But 2021 will present a unique challenge for Zusi. After all, he is currently rehabbing the first significant long-term injury of his professional career, having suffered a serious knock against the Chicago Fire last October at Children’s Mercy Park. And although he finds himself in uncharted territory, the 34-year-old is pleased with the progress he is making.
“In terms of rehab, everything’s been going extremely well,” Zusi said during a discussion with Sports Radio 810 WHB hosts Nate Bukaty and Steven St. John on Wednesday. “Throughout this entire process, I’ve either been on or ahead of schedule. My (physical therapist) and I are kind of thrilled with where I’m at right now. I can’t wait to get back on the field because it’s been a long time.”
Zusi has been limited in his activities at Compass Minerals National Performance Center but did say that he hopes to be back on the field and training with teammates by mid-April. He is also eager for a gradual return to normalcy, as stadiums across the country are expected to welcome larger crowds in conjunction with improving conditions around COVID-19.
Larger and louder crowds, Zusi says, will provide a massive spark for professional athletes, who have grown accustomed to playing in empty or mostly empty venues.
“I miss our fans, I miss full stadiums,” Zusi said. “As a player, the adrenaline is flowing because of the fans and the atmosphere they create. Without them, you almost have to try and create it yourself, and that’s near impossible. That adrenaline rush you get from the fans isn’t there. Creating that energy on your own is difficult to do. I watch games from all over the world in empty stadiums, and it’s just strange…It’s not the same. I don’t think anyone realized how much the atmosphere drove games.”
Zusi also reflected on a Sporting team that has a different look heading into 2021. Gone are veterans Matt Besler, Gerso Fernandes and Erik Hurtado, among others. Newcomers include heralded Frenchmen Remi Walter and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin as well as a host of Academy products, which has lowered the average age of Sporting’s squad to 25.
“It’s a different-look team, there’s no question about it,” Zusi said. “Losing teammates over the years is difficult because you do build those relationships for so long.”
He continued: “It’s the natural evolution for the team, and I think you see teams relying more and more on younger players. We’ve got a fantastic core of young kids coming up through the ranks, and I’m excited to see what kind of impact they can have.”
Sporting players will begin voluntary training Monday at Compass Minerals National Performance Center before traveling to Arizona on March 7 for the official start of the 2021 preseason, presented by Children’s Mercy. More preseason details will be announced in the near term.