Nobody in MLS knows Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi quite as well as SKC and U.S. teammate Matt Besler, which means that no one has a better idea of the injury hell Zusi suffered though, mostly in silence, last season. If 2014 marked the apex of Zusi's seven-year pro career (the Orlando, Florida native played in all four U.S. games at the World Cup in Brazil) 2015 represented its nadir. The problem was a stress reaction in his right foot that plagued him from January to December.
"I could tell that he was struggling with something, but I don't think a lot of other people could," Besler told ESPN FC ahead of Sporting's trip to San Jose, where they'll face the Earthquakes in Sunday's matinee at Avaya Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).
"Graham hides those things extremely well and doesn't make any excuses, where as another guy in the same situation probably would've shut it down in order to protect himself. Graham didn't do that. That's not the type of guy that he is, but I could just tell in his face," Besler continued. "Graham has a very high pain tolerance, and there were certain moments I could see it in his face and I knew that if he's grimacing like that, something's up."
The result, at least from a statistical point of view (two goals, five assists), was Zusi's worst season since he became a full-time starter in MLS. For a player who had averaged five goals and 9.5 assists from the 2011 season through 2014, the fall-off in production didn't go unnoticed even if the cause of it largely did: U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Zusi off of four consecutive rosters following the Americans' lackluster showing at the Gold Cup.
Now, though, his prospects are looking up. The new season is in full swing and Zusi, whose foot is fully recovered, starting to feel like his old self. He's even back with the national team, having been summoned to the rescue after last month's ugly World Cup qualifying loss in Guatemala City, starting (and scoring in) the must-win rematch four days later.
"We tried so many things last season to make [the injury] manageable: carbon fiber plates in the boot, just crazy tape jobs, all this different stuff," Zusi said in a phone interview. "It was still always there, always kind of nagging and lingering. The only way to try to get rid of those things is to not play at all. I decided to play through it.
But after the season, I made it a real point to have it not be an issue anymore. Through a lot of rehab and a lot of strengthening, I was able to get over it. It's nice not having all that crap in my boot anymore."
Zusi admitted he was "a little shocked" to receive the recall when asked after his recent national team heroics. But that was more down to the timing of the invite, Zusi clarified this week.
"Jurgen actually has been great," he said. "Especially in the off-season, we were in touch quite a bit about my injury. He's been very patient with me, which is greatly appreciated on my side. We had a couple of conversations and decided that if I'm not 100 percent, I'm not going be able to help Sporting or the national team. I never felt like I was completely out of the picture. I knew that if I got back to the level I was playing at before, I would always have a shot."
Zusi's clutch performance against Guatemala no doubt bolstered his chances of remaining in Klinsmann's plans though June's Copa America Centenario. But with plenty of competition in midfield -- not least on the wings, where Alejando Bedoya, Gyasi Zardes, Fabian Johnson, Ethan Finley and teenager Christian Pulisic are all potentially vying for spots -- he has more to prove to claim a place on the final 23-man squad. Sunday provides another chance to show that he's approaching peak form.
After losing two straight games, SKC must stop the bleeding with at least a point on the road. It won't be easy. The Quakes haven't lost iat Avaya this season, winning three times and conceding just two goals in four matches so far. "We started the season well, and to be honest I think we got a little bit comfortable and thought it was going to come easier than it does in this league," Zusi said.
"Part of the issue has been our competitiveness. It wasn't there. If we bring that energy in San Jose we know it's going to be a good game."
Zusi also knows Klinsmann and his staff will be watching. "I would love to be part of Copa America, but it starts here," Zusi said. "The national team coaches are looking at your performances with your club and basing their decision off of that."
Good thing Zusi can finally put his best foot forward.