By Louis East and Zack Walford
Sporting Kansas City open their 21st season in MLS at Seattle Sounders on Sunday night in what is a tough opener. But SKC veteran Graham Zusi believes a solid preseason camp has put the team in a strong position to challenge for trophies in 2016.
The 29-year-old playmaker is entering his eighth Major League Soccer campaign with Kansas City and will be looking to continue to shine as one of the team’s brightest stars in 2016.
He is one of the club’s two Designated Players, along with long-time friend and fellow 2009 draft pick, Matt Besler. But Zusi doesn’t think that having a DP tag necessarily brings more pressure, and isn’t interested in personal achievements. He is purely focused on helping his team and his work rate on the field is testament to that.
“I think I put myself under enough pressure,” he tells MLSGB. “I don’t think the motivation comes from anywhere else. I think there’s plenty of motivation, internally and throughout the team.
“All my goals are team-orientated. For me, it’s all about winning trophies together as a team and I’m looking to do more of that this year.”
Sporting Kansas City endured a tough campaign on their return to the Western Conference last term, but did manage to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth-straight season, before being eliminated on penalties in the knockout round to eventual winners Portland Timbers.
SKC, who lifted the MLS Cup in 2013, need to try and climb above several sides if they are to challenge at the very top of the Western Conference in 2016, following their sixth-placed finish last year.
The West is viewed by most as the more competitive of the two conferences, but Zusi doesn’t think there is one team who stands above the rest and believes it’s anyone’s to win this term.
“I think the West is a very challenging conference. As you saw [last year], it was very tight throughout the whole year and even up until the last week, there’s a whole lot of shifting throughout. There’s really not a standout team or two. It could really be anyone in any given year.”
Audio – Graham Zusi explains how the Western Conference is wide open for anyone to win this year:
SKC fans will certainly hope it is wide open to increase their own chances of success. They looked on track to challenge for the Supporters’ Shield at the midpoint of last season, before an inconsistent end to the campaign saw that challenge fade.
Zusi scored two goals and picked up five assists in 25 regular season appearances last term, taking his total number of goals contributed to 68 in 173 regular season matches.
SKC’s preseason campaign was a good one as the team went unbeaten through six games in preparation for the new season, and the midfielder thinks the team improved steadily over the past few weeks.
“I thought it went well,” he said. “I thought as a team we got better at every opportunity we could. Each game was an improvement from the one before and training sessions were very good as well. Everyone was focused and determined in each session.
All focus will now be on getting a result at Seattle on Sunday night. Sporting KC didn’t lose to the Sounders in three meetings last term, drawing 0-0 in the only game at CenturyLink Field, and so they will be confident of avoiding defeat in their season opener.
How important is Graham Zusi for Sporting Kansas City? What will SKC achieve this season?