Exclusive: Graham Zusi hunting trophies with SKC in ‘wide open’ Western Conference

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.”

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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.

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“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?

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EXCLUSIVE: Maurice Edu on rise of MLS, USMNT chances and playing defence

Philadelphia Union midfielder Maurice Edu has settled back in MLS after completing a permanent move from Premier League club Stoke City in January and he is one of many who are desperate to see Major League Soccer thrive.

The 29-year-old Union captain speaks glowingly of the development of MLS and is enjoying his time in Philadelphia.

After joining on loan for the 2014 campaign, Edu returned home to America on a permanent basis in January this year, eight years after being picked first overall in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft by Toronto FC.

After earning the MLS Rookie of the Year award in his first season, Edu then moved to Scotland with Rangers in 2008 and also spent time with Stoke City and Turkish club Bursaspor before returning to MLS, something he is happy about.

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“I enjoyed my time thoroughly while I was in Europe and for me, when this opportunity presented itself, it was the best choice,” Edu exclusively told MLSGB this week.

“I always had plans to come back here at some point. It probably happened a bit sooner than maybe expected but it was still a welcome opportunity and one I’m glad I chose.

“This is a league that gave me a start in my career and it’s my home country as well so I’ve always wanted to come back here to help continually push this game forward and make it a big deal.”

He is one of many US Men’s National Team stars to make the move stateside in order to help the league develop in recent years, and Edu knows that the right steps are being taken to ensure the growth of US Soccer continues.

“I think the league is heading in the right direction,” he added. “It’s vastly improved compared to where it was when I first started off playing here and I’m enjoying being back.

“The national team has had success over the past couple of World Cups and that’s drawn more attention to the league from a domestic standpoint, but from a quality standpoint, we’ve been able to attract some quality players from abroad as well as getting some players coming in here at their prime ages.

“There are a lot more soccer-specific stadiums being developed across the country. Every club has an academy system, which is good as it’s developing our youth from a young age and getting them involved in a professional atmosphere, which is obviously going to bode well for soccer as a product of this country.”

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Edu is fully committed to the game and all aspects surrounding it. He speaks with confidence about the growth of MLS and is willing to do whatever he can to help those around him succeed.

He is vastly experienced despite being just 29, and is always looking to help the young players develop where he can as the leader of the side.

Asked whether he felt more responsibility being a Designated Player and being the team captain, he replied: “I do. Not necessarily just because I have that role but because of my experiences. I’ve been a part of the national team, I’ve played in Europe in competitions like the Champions League.

“I know a lot of young guys here aspire to do the same thing so I try to help them out in any way possible, and try to create a professional and competitive atmosphere here, and that only bodes well for them as individuals and also for this team going forward.”

Edu has made 46 appearances for the US Men’s National Team to date and despite only playing once in 2014 and missing out on the World Cup squad, he is hoping to get more opportunities now he is playing regularly.

Jurgen Klinsmann last called Edu up to a friendly against Mexico last April but with the Gold Cup just around the corner, he may look at recalling the Union captain.

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“I just focus on playing,” Edu said after being asked about a possible USMNT recall. “I think if you’re playing well you’ll get opportunities. Obviously if you’re team’s doing well, that’s a direct reflection of how you’re playing also.

“For me right now, I’m just focused on this team. We had a little bit of a rough start at the beginning of the season but we’ve had a couple wins now and we want to continue and push up the table. I think if we do that, and I continue to play well, then there will be opportunities to get back into the national team.”

Edu has been known as a midfielder for most of his career but Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin has been using him at centre-back – a role Edu admits he is still learning.

“I’ve been playing at the back at lot more this season so it’s something that I’m getting used to. For me personally, I just want the opportunity to be successful so if I’m asked to play in the back, in midfield, as a striker or even in goal, I just want the team to do well and to help get us into the playoffs.

“It’s a role that I’m getting more and more comfortable with. I’m still learning bits and pieces here and there and trying to improve but I feel good playing at the back. I think some of my qualities from playing in midfield have helped me and it’s a role that forces you to be more vocal and to continue to be a leader.”

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After missing last week’s 2-0 win at the New York Red Bulls through suspension, Edu is looking forward to getting back into the team for the trip to DC United on Saturday night. He knows how important a game that is, saying: “It’s a big one for us but I’m pretty confident.”

The Union’s chances of making the playoffs may be unclear, but there is no hiding the fact that Edu is fully committed to his team and the league. His return to his homeland has made Major League Soccer a better place and his presence will continue to help the development of MLS.

EXCLUSIVE: Lloyd Sam looking ‘to get aggression back’ as Red Bulls look to evolve

The New York Red Bulls have started 2015 in much better form than many predicted, and are currently three points better off than at the same stage last season, despite the change in head coach and the loss of Designated Players Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.

But not everything changed, and Lloyd Sam is one of the players who has remained an integral part of the Red Bulls team, as he has since joining from Leeds United in 2012.

The English winger started the campaign with three goals in four matches and is already on the same number as he was after 27 weeks in 2014, but he admits that he is not happy with his recent goalscoring drought, having not scored in seven.

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“At the moment I’m not really happy with myself in front of goal,” Sam told MLSGB. “I haven’t scored in a few games and I want to get back to that aggression that I was showing in the first few matches.

“So I’ve got to get back to that, running hard in the box and really making myself a nuisance. We’re looking at that right now about getting that aggression back.”

There were concerns that the Red Bulls were going to struggle this season after waving goodbye to Mike Petke despite their playoff run to the Eastern Conference final at the end of last season.

But Jesse Marsch has come in and has done well with the squad so far, leading them to third place in the Eastern Conference. They are just five points off top placed DC United and have two games in hand but Sam isn’t surprised by the encouraging start to the season.

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“I don’t know if I’m surprised,” the former Charlton Athletic winger said. “After going into preseason everything started well and I wouldn’t say I’m surprised because I look around me and I see good players and good people.

“It’s going to be hard to keep up the same style but we’re going to endeavor to do it and hopefully get stronger and stronger, and evolve into the team we want to be.”

Sam’s fellow Englishman Bradley Wright-Phillips tied the MLS record with 27 regular season goals in an exceptional season last year, and even though regular provider Thierry Henry has left, Wright-Phillips has still netted five times from ten starts so far in 2015.

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The two English attackers have a strong relationship on the field and off it, and Sam loves playing alongside last season’s MLS Golden Boot winner.

“He’s a really good guy. I love having him here and enjoy playing with him, especially when he converts a cross that I put in.

“I know his family so it’s good having him here and it’s good to go on the pitch with a guy that I know from London already. We’ve got good camaraderie.”

What have you made of Lloyd Sam and the New York Red Bull’s start to the 2015 season?

EXCLUSIVE: Minnesota United’s ‘Dark Clouds’ on MLS dream

Minnesota United FC are set to become the latest Major League Soccer expansion franchise when MLS Commissioner Don Garber and United owner Dr. Bill McGuire make the announcement on Wednesday afternoon, and that means another set of passionate supporters are set to enter the league too.

Minnesota United’s largest and oldest supporters group is the Dark Clouds and they have followed the team through thick and thin since they were formed in 2004. They are delighted that the club is finally on its way into MLS and cannot wait for the next era.

“It’s hard not to see the place in MLS as vital,” the Dark Clouds’ President Jim Oliver told MLSGB’s Louis East. “Minnesota’s had second division soccer for going on 26 years now, so we’ve had a team to support for a long time and have managed to survive through lean economic times and fraudsters for owners.
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“Despite that long history though, the competition for getting the rights to the MLS franchise in Minnesota might have put another club in United’s geographic area, which would have spelled doom for our club. That’s why it was so important for United to go for the MLS spot, and why we’re so pleased that our owner Dr. McGuire and his partners were willing to make the commitment.”

Some members of the Dark Clouds have been waiting for as long as two decades for their MLS dream to come true so the fact that United are set to become the league’s 23rd club is certainly something they’ve earned.

“MLS has been around for 20 years, so there’s definitely some among us who’ve been waiting that long,” Oliver added.

“Honestly we’ve been happy to support a lower-division club since the founding of the Dark Clouds 12 years ago, but nobody can say that you don’t dream of the quality players, stadiums and competition that the top flight provides.

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“For the Dark Clouds, we’re excited about all the attention MLS will bring and how it’ll help us to expand the charitable work that our group does. We’ve supported local soccer-related causes for years, and it’ll be great to hopefully turn that trickle of volunteerism and cash donation into a flood.”

Minnesota United’s official website claims: “We are industrious and built around the idea that hard work yields the greatest rewards. We are strong and getting stronger. We are United.”

More of those rewards are just around the corner now. An MLS franchise could enter the league within the next three years and United fans will hope to dominate in the top flight the same way they have done in the NASL over the past four years.

The NASL started it’s second chapter in 2011, and Minnesota United won the championship at the end of that first season. United then won the NASL Spring Championship last season and will look to enter MLS in style by continuing to dominate the second-tier of US Soccer until then.

Minnesota United celebrate winning the 2014 NASL Spring Championship (Photo: NASL.com)

Minnesota United celebrate winning the 2014 NASL Spring Championship (Photo: NASL.com)

“We’re expecting big things from United,” Oliver continued. “The ownership group has show a commitment to really raise the level even in the second division, bringing in great players and staff and systems that kept us firmly on top of the table last year.”

“There’s no other second division club in this country that commits resources to things like preseason tours (England last year and Brazil this year) and signings on the level we’ve seen from United in recent years. Dr. McGuire wants a dominant side and he’s done what it takes to build one. We can’t wait to see that in MLS.”

Are you looking forward to seeing Minnesota United enter MLS as the latest expansion franchise?

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Otis Earle ahead of MLS Player Combine

Young English defender Otis Earle will be at the MLS Player Combine in early January, looking to impress scouts from all 20 Major League Soccer clubs ahead of the MLS SuperDraft on January 15.

The 22-year-old London native is the son of former Premier League player Robbie Earle who now does media work in America.

Otis Earle moved from Epsom College to California to play for UC Riverside and after impressing during his four seasons with the Highlanders, he is now close to making it as a professional in the fastest growing sports league in the world.

“I’m very excited for the MLS Combine. It’s a great opportunity to represent my school, as well as myself and I am looking forward to showing the various scouts and coaches what I can do,” he said.

“Football in the US is growing, there’s no doubt about that. So as a young player striving to get drafted, it’s a very exciting time.”

Otis Earle in action for UC Riverside (Photo by Gabriel L. Acosta)

Otis Earle in action for UC Riverside (Photo by Gabriel L. Acosta)

More and more English youngsters are moving to America to play soccer and the Earle belives the standard is almost as good as that in the UK now.

“The standard over here is very high. Extremely close to that seen in England. Especially in Southern California, where I’ve been playing. The game is played the right way, with a lot of technical players.

“I think the idea of scholarships and college sports are a great idea and something that the UK could possibly learn from.

If you don’t make it at a young age in the UK, there are no real options. Over here, you can still pursue your professional goals whilst attending a college and getting an education.”

The MLS SuperDraft see’s MLS clubs draft college players and other youngsters, and it is a great way for players such as Earle to get their chance to play in the rapidly growing world of Major League Soccer.

The left-back scored two goals and picked up four assists in 15 games for UC Riverside in 2014 and is certainly a player with the potential to be a star.

He will now be preparing for the MLS Player Combine in less than a month and Earle admits that he is ready for the next chapter of his career.

“I would love to get drafted. I feel like I’m ready to make the next step in my career and to challenge myself as both a person and a player.

It’s an exciting time but I need to just keep my head down, stay focused and hopefully things will work out.”

Exclusive: An interview with new Orlando City star Aurelien Collin

Aurelien Collin has a new home in Major League Soccer. The dominant French defender joined expansion franchise Orlando City from Sporting Kansas City in Monday’s half-day trading window in exchange for allocation money and future considerations.

Collin spent four successful seasons in Kansas City, making over 100 appearances for the club and although he must now concentrate on the next exciting chapter of his career, the 28-year-old centre-back will never forget his time with SKC.

“The last four years were the best of my life. Winning the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup were special moments for me,” he said.

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Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes revealed on Monday that Collin was only let go as a result of salary cap constraints and the 2013 MLS Cup MVP will definitely be missed at Sporting Park.

But Collin is glad that he has been able to stay in MLS by moving to Orlando, and is looking forward to playing alongside Brazilian superstar Kaka in 2015.

“I’m very happy. MLS is growing very fast and Orlando is a big city with big plans.

“Playing with Kaka will be an honor for me, both as a Christian and a soccer player, and I will learn a lot from him.”

Collin has played in France, Spain, Scotland, Greece, England and Portugal. But he has belonged in MLS ever since moving to the league in 2011.

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He knows the league and what is required to succeed, having won both the MLS Cup and US Open Cup with Sporting Kansas City. His experience will be vital for Orlando in their debut campaign and he will need to be a leader for those new to MLS in the Lions’ locker room, including Kaka.

Wednesday’s MLS Expansion Draft is another huge day for Orlando City as they have the chance to add some more much-needed depth to their squad.

And although many may assume the new boys will try and ease their way into life in Major League Soccer, Collin is targeting success from the onset.

Aurelien Collin Orlando City

When asked what his hopes for the team were in their inaugural campaign, he simply replied: “We want to make the playoffs!”

It will be fascinating to see how Orlando perform next season. But in Aurelien Collin, they already have a leader in defence. And the three-time MLS All-Star certainly knows how to succeed in the ever-growing world of Major League Soccer.

How good a signing is Aurelien Collin for Orlando City SC?

Exclusive: An interview with Seattle Sounders’ Damion Lowe

In an exclusive interview with MLSGB, Seattle Sounders defender Damion Lowe explains how his first season in Major League Soccer has made him a “better man”, and he is now looking ahead to the playoffs with his Seattle teammates.

The 21-year-old Generation Adidas centre-back was drafted by the Sounders with the eighth pick of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft and despite having his first season in the league disrupted by injury, the pacey Jamaican defender is staying positive and is looking ahead.

“I’ve learnt and understand the game more, because I am constantly in a professional environment and I’ve learnt how to handle situations on and off the field.

“I know I have to be prepared to be strong during good and bad times, such as during my injury. So far my experience [as a professional] has most importantly shaped me into a better man,” Lowe said.

Photo: Lowe was selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft

Photo: Lowe was selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid recently described Lowe as Seattle’s “fastest defender”, a seriously impressive claim considering the 6ft 3in centre-back plays in the same side as USMNT star DeAndre Yedlin.

Lowe hasn’t been able to showcase his talents in MLS as he underwent surgery to his left hip in April, and subsequently missed four months, but he is back in contention now and is continuing to fight for his first start, with the playoffs fast approaching.

“In life nothing is guaranteed and at one point you can be at the top, and also at the bottom, but to believe in yourself and your ability is very important.

I think my injury was just a setback, it’s never too late to contribute to the team even if it’s the last game of the season, and I’m always looking to contribute. I have to plan for what is happening now.”

Photo: Lowe in action for the Sounders

Photo: Lowe in action for the Sounders

The Sounders have conceded a worrying 48 goals this season, and they will hope that Lowe can come in a make an impact when he is given his chance.

Chad Marshall in the number one defender in Seattle, but with Djimi Traore and Zach Scott both 34-years-old, there is undoubtedly a place in the side waiting for Damion Lowe.

He may have to wait until next season to make his mark, but the centre-back could be an MLS Cup winner in his first season as the Sounders are expected to go far in the playoffs.

And Lowe is not taking anything for granted, admitting that his side must continue to work hard if the Sounders are to lift the MLS Cup for the first time.

“Everyone wants to be a champion. We want to be champions too. But at the end of the day we know that we have to work hard for it.”

EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with MLS rookie Fifi Baiden

In an exclusive interview with MLS GB, Kingsley “Fifi” Baiden explains his rise from the backstreets of Ghana to the glamour of Major League Soccer, as well as his hopes for the season with the Columbus Crew.

Fifi Baiden was drafted by the Columbus Crew with the fourth pick in the third round of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, fulfilling his long-term dream to play professional on the world stage.

The 22-year-old holding midfielder is just the second Right to Dream graduate to sign for an MLS side, after Michael Tetteh was drafted by the Seattle Sounders in 2011.

Baiden grew up loving football and explains how the game is played throughout Ghana and can create brighter futures for children.

“Football is played in all corners of Ghana. On the streets, in the backyard, and in any open area, whether its sandy or gravel, you see kids playing football.”

“Due to the economic hardship of my family, and Ghana in general, football is another way to create opportunities for a better future. Unable for my parents to afford my education at an early age, I got plenty of time to play soccer with my uncles and friends on the streets.”

His love for football and determination to succeed saw Baiden graduate from the Right to Dream academy, and enabled him to make the jump to the US to pursue his career as a professional footballer.

Baiden in action for UC Santa Barbara

Baiden in action for UC Santa Barbara

After playing soccer for several years in the US, including four years of college soccer at UC Santa Barbara, the Ghanaian is now ready to make an impression on Major League Soccer with Columbus.

He has yet to make an appearance for the Crew, but is patient and is working hard as ever to ensure his ready when the opportunity arrives.

“As a rookie, my main aim is to work very hard to get on the field. We have very competitive and talented players, and everyone is doing the best they can to maintain their position as a starter or in the 18 man squad.”

“It is my goal to break into the 18 man squad and start playing games to offer my contribution to the team in anyway I can. It takes patience, and I believe my aim will be achieved soon when the time is right.”

The Crew ended an eight-game winless streak by beating Chicago Fire on Saturday night and Baiden said prior to the game that Columbus were ready to turn their season around.

“We are doing well, all the games we played have been close in terms of the results. We just have to keep working hard as a group, and find ways to score goals and not give up goals as well. Everyone is doing their best and I believe we will get over the hurdle.”

The rookie wasn’t wrong, and the Crew will now look to build on what was their first win since March.

Fifi Baiden will hope to be a part of their rise this season, as they look to make the playoffs once more.

The rookie will be looking forward to play

The rookie will hope to take to the field at Columbus Crew Stadium before too long

The midfielder has come a long way from watching the likes of Steven Gerrard in Ghanaian theatres, and his bright future will only take him further.

“I used to sneak into theaters to catch a glimpse of any football played on TV, and I listened to the radio a lot for big names like Steven Gerrard, Messi, Kaka etc.”

Now it is time for Fifi Baiden’s name to be broadcast around the world, and we look forward to seeing him in action when he makes his eagerly anticipated MLS debut with Columbus.