"Zeus" is not a superstar. Graham Zusi, the 27-year-old midfielder blessed with an Olympian nickname, did not grow up playing for high-profile American youth national teams, and he never competed in the English Premier League, soccer’s most elite level, like big-name U.S. national teammates Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. In fact, for a pro athlete gearing up to play on a global stage, Zusi is quiet and unassuming: He floats under the radar, free to walk the streets of Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood, where he lives, in relative anonymity.
But perhaps more than any other player on the U.S. national squad, Zusi represents America’s best hope for success at this year’s World Cup in Brazil. He’s one of the fittest players on a team that increasingly survives, even thrives, on its outsize endurance in international competition. “The U.S. is a team that lives on its athletic performance and its [conditioning],” says Michael Ballack, the former German soccer star who played against the Americans in 2002. “On the pitch against the world’s best, however, they do not particularly stick out with skill.”
That is a charge that even some American players will not dispute. Regardless, when the competition begins in June, the team will enter the tournament more confident than ever. They will play three games in 11 days, taking on Ghana, Portugal, and Germany in the so-called “Group of Death.” Their travel schedule will encompass more than 11,000 miles from the team’s base in São Paulo to matches in Recife, Natal, and Manaus, where they’ll play Portugal amid soul-crushing humidity in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. It’s the type of trek that gives a fitness coach nightmares—which means that the ultrafit Americans, more than any other nation, are actually looking forward to it.
In Major League Soccer, where many of the U.S. players earn a living, teams routinely endure cross-country flights and play matches in extreme conditions: The heat of August in Texas, the freezing cold of October in Montreal. “It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before,” says Zusi. “Playing in Houston is worse than what we experienced [earlier this year in Brazil]. To be honest, I do not think the weather is going to be a factor for us. But it will be for a lot of the European teams.”
He has a point: Europe’s leagues are confined to smaller countries with similar, more temperate climates. (“Believe me,” says Pierre Barrieu, the U.S. fitness instructor for much of the last decade, “The Portuguese have no idea about the humidity when compared to the U.S. players.”) Which begs the question: Will the tournament’s oppressive conditions offer soccer’s perennial also-rans a more level playing field than usual? Frankie Hejduk, a defender who played for the U.S. national team in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, believes so.
“If we’re fitter than they are,” he says, referring to the Group of Death, “we can try to run them into the ground.”