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Jun 28, 2013

Graham Zusi to stay with Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Like most young soccer players, Graham Zusi always harbored dreams of playing professionally in Europe, perhaps with one of the powerhouse teams in the English Premier League.

Now that those aspirations appear possible, Zusi has chosen to take a different path.

The midfielder and member of the U.S. national team signed a new four-year contract Friday with Sporting Kansas City, shelving interest from several overseas clubs to remain in Major League Soccer in what could be considered a significant step for the domestic game.

"He's a guy that obviously had lots of options all over the world," Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "We made it clear to him that we want to keep him here long-term, and we wanted to at least make it a difficult decision to leave."

Financial terms of the new deal were not announced, though coach Peter Vermes said that Zusi received a substantial raise. His previous contract had a $140,000 base salary this year and total guaranteed 2013 compensation of $173,813, according to the MLS Players Union.

"It's just a great organization to play for, from top to bottom," Zusi said about Sporting KC. "They're demanding the best, whether it's from the players, the staff, coaches, the ownership group, the stadium. They leave no stone unturned when they want to accomplish something, and that's the kind of organization you want to play for."

Even if it happens to be in the United States.

The best soccer in the world is still played across the Atlantic, but the once-wide gulf that separates European leagues from the MLS is slowly getting smaller. Many of Zusi's teammates on the national team, such as Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, still ply their trade in Europe, but choosing to chase foreign riches is no longer such an easy decision.

For one thing, many clubs in Europe face significant financial hardships, and some clubs have had trouble paying their players. That's never been an issue in MLS, where attendance, revenue and overall interest seem to be soaring -- especially in Kansas City.

Then there's the fact that the quality of play is rapidly improving. It's not uncommon for MLS teams to beat European counterparts in friendlies arranged over the course of the summer -- Sporting KC, then known as the Wizards, topped Manchester United just a few years ago.

"What I would say is that probably back in my day it would have been easier for some guys to leave," said Vermes, who played in both the MLS and European leagues during his career. "So when a guy like (Zusi) signs to stay here, it tells everyone, 'I don't have to leave to get better play. I don't have to leave to get more money.'"

That doesn't mean the 26-year-old Zusi will never head to Europe.

The philosophy of Sporting KC has always been to find ambitious young players and help them to achieve their goals. That's why the club was supportive in loaning Kei Kamara to Norwich City this season, and why Heineman and Vermes insist they would let Zusi go for the right opportunity.

"Who knows? Eventually it could happen," Zusi said. "But I'm not going to go there just to say I'm playing in Europe. I want to be in a spot I'm getting the best training, the best competition I can play at. I'm not going to go to a league just because of the name of the league. I want to be getting the consistent, highest level of competition that I can. Right now that's right here."

Zusi clearly has risen to superstar status over the past few seasons.

After helping Maryland to a pair of national championships, he was chosen in the second round of the 2009 MLS draft. He gradually solidified his place on the roster over his first two seasons, and in 2011 led the renamed Sporting KC franchise to the Eastern conference title.

He made his debut with the national team last season, starting in a 1-0 win over Venezuela, and scored his first international goal in a victory over Panama a few weeks later.

Now, he's become a key player in the U.S. bid to reach its seventh straight World Cup.

"Look, there's no doubt he's a franchise player for us," Vermes said. "I think that's evident to everybody. He's made his mark on the national team and with that comes great responsibility, for sure, but I think that comes with any player who's making his way up the ladder."

Zusi spent time training with West Ham in January, leading some to believe that a move to England was imminent. But Zusi said after a training session Friday that he's happy with Sporting KC, and that his decision to sign a new contract after months of negotiations was the right one.

"All along, this is the place I wanted to be," Zusi said. "It wasn't a stressful process whatsoever. These things just sometimes take a while to iron out. I'm glad to have it done with."

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