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Dec 14, 2008

Zusi continues knack for clutch goals

FRISCO, Texas -- For a guy who doesn't exactly devour the scoring records, Graham Zusi sure has a knack for turning up massive and memorable goals. Maryland's attacking midfielder supplied both strikes this weekend as a pair of 1-0 wins gave the Terrapins a second NCAA men's soccer championship in four years. His big weekend finished with Sunday's game-winner in a 1-0 victory over North Carolina.

The senior -- who is from Longwood, Fla. -- struck a beauty Friday in a well-deserved win over St. John's. His extra-time free kick was the punctuation mark on a busy, standout effort in the College Cup semifinal.

Zusi didn't have the same kind of volume in terms of chances created Sunday at Pizza Hut Park in a slightly sluggish final. But Zusi was at the right place at the right time to finish with composure, settling Sunday's final in suburban Dallas with a 67th-minute strike from the top of the penalty area.

Zusi had four goals through 24 matches during the season before arriving in Texas for the 50th annual College Cup -- then turned up two goals in two matches as the Terrapins claimed their crown. He was named the tournament's outstanding offensive player. Teammate Omar Gonzalez was named the outstanding defensive player.

Manager Sasho Cirovski had noted in pregame video sessions that, due to the way North Carolina defenders arranged themselves as attacks developed, balls would occasionally pop up unclaimed around the top of the penalty area. That's exactly what happened when Doug Rodkey found a little space on the right flank and sent a hard cross in front of the goal.

His cross found Jeremy Hall, whose shot bounced off a defender and rolled enticingly toward Zusi. The Terrapins' man of the moment had time to see that UNC goalkeeper Brooks Haggerty was partially screened. Zusi picked out his spot -- low to the left corner -- and nailed it with laser-target precision.

Zusi was a freshman in 2005 when he struck for the first goal against SMU in the Terrapins' NCAA semifinal win. So his days as a Terrapin started with an NCAA title; now they'll end with one.

"What more can you ask for?" he said Sunday from beneath an NCAA Championship ball cap. "Both teams were special in their own ways. I am extremely happy to be more of a part of this one."

Quite an understatement from the converted forward, who slid into the attacking midfield spot this year upon Stephen King's departure in 2007. (King was picked in the third round by the Chicago Fire last January.) Indeed, Zusi looks and plays more like a forward. He always seems to be probing for chances to slash and shoot rather than looking for chances to deliver the killer pass. Think of him as a Clint Dempsey starter kit.

"Sash had always told me I had it in me," Zusi said of the adjustment from forward. "It was just a matter of buying into it that made the difference."

Zusi's big weekend surely caught the attention of numerous MLS managers and scouts in Frisco. He could be one of several targets at the MLS draft in January, depending on who else becomes eligible from this team. Junior midfielder Jeremy Hall, sophomore left back Rodney Wallace and Gonzalez (also a sophomore) have also been subjects of speculation on turning pro.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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