By Collin and Russell Hickey
On a warm, sunny Kansas City afternoon, Sporting Park welcomed back midfielder Graham Zusi and central defender Matt Besler from duty with the United States Men’s National Team. With the smoke from the fireworks still hanging over the field, the crowd began chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Besler and Zusi appeared in all four of the United States’ games at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
“It was the ride of a lifetime,” Besler said. “I’m definitely excited to be back home in Kansas City. I feel like me and Graham learned a lot – both on the field and off the field. We’re both looking forward to giving some of the things we learned back to our teammates.”
During their absence, Sporting Kansas City weathered a storm of injuries by picking up vital road wins at Houston and Portland. Going into the weekend, Sporting was tied for first place in the MLS Eastern Conference.
“I’ve never seen anything like the situation (Sporting Kansas City) has been put in, with the injuries and lack of numbers,” Zusi said. “For the guys to claw their way back from every set-back that they went through, and get back into the first-place position, says so much about our team and the character we have. I was personally so proud of the young guys, and the guys who have not been in a position to have a big impact on the team, step in and do so well.”Zusi did not start Sunday’s game against Chicago, but came on in the 60th minute for Soony Saad. Besler, however, was not in the 18 for the game.
Dom Dwyer put Sporting up 1-0 in the 34th minute after stealing the ball and slotting home a left-footed shot past Chicago keeper Sean Johnson. Chicago equalized six minutes later on a Mike Magee goal.
With the score still tied in the 60th minute, and Zusi finished warming up, the crowd erupted in a chant of “Zeus!” when he appeared on the scoreboard ready to enter the match. Zusi was back home.
“It’s always a dream of a soccer player to represent his country on the biggest stage,” Zusi said. “For myself and Matt, it was an amazing experience to not only represent our country but also represent Kansas City.”
Zusi made an immediate impact on Sunday’s game, creating chances for Sporting to find the game winner. Zusi was ultimately handed the captain’s armband when Paulo Nagamura left the game in the 80th minute. The game-winning goal eluded Sporting, which settled for a 1-1 draw. Kansas City is now two points off DC United’s lead atop the Eastern Conference.
Aside from the immediate boost Zusi brought to the team on Sunday, the other hot topic was Besler’s future with Sporting Kansas City. After the USA’s 2-1 loss to Belgium on Tuesday, and return trip back to the United States, Besler had a whirlwind media tour. Besler is now the subject of various transfer rumors linking him to teams in Europe.
“I think that I’ve made it very clear how happy I am in Kansas City,” Besler said. “At the same time, in the position I am right now, you may only get opportunities like these once in a lifetime. I feel the need to, at least, look into potential opportunities and make a decision from there.
“We all know that (transfers after the World Cup) are possible,” Besler said. “You’re playing on the biggest stage. During the World Cup, actually, it doesn’t go through your mind at all. You’re just focused on helping the team – especially our team. We’re not an individual team. Our success comes from playing together. I don’t think anyone was focused on their own career during the World Cup. They were just focused on advancing as far as we could.”
Even though the World Cup ended before either Zusi or Besler wanted, they both felt there was a lot to which they can look forward.
“After we went out, you have those thoughts about how it’s another four years until something like this comes around. The way the schedule is – there’s a major tournament every year,” Zusi said, alluding to the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cups, 2016 Copa America and potential 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. “It makes you hungry for more.”
In the near term, though, there is plenty of work to do at the club level – whether it is in Kansas City or elsewhere.
“Things happened so fast after we lost (to Belgium), there was not a lot of time to meet or address the team,” Besler said. “It’s the same message (USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann) always gives us – come back, be leaders, hold yourself to a high standard and continue to progress at your club.”
Collin has been raised an Arsenal fan, and his favorite player is Mesut Ozil.
Their previous article looked at Arsenal’s pursuit of the FA Cup this winter