On the first day of the team’s january camp in Los Angeles, on a pitch outside the StubHub Center, the hard work is just getting started. The players, gasping for air and clutching the sides of their American-flag uniforms, wander the grass between drills like crooked-stepped zombies, their scruffy faces draped in thousand-yard stares. They’ve just finished a five-on-five game set on a grid stretching from the 18-yard box at one end to the midfield to the other—roughly 40 yards long and 30 yards wide.
During the game, 10 players at a time sprint nonstop, attacking the goal with the ball and scrambling into defensive positions after losing it. When the ball exits the designated field of play, a new one immediately rolls in. The rules of the drill dictate that a player has only three touches before he must pass or shoot, which is intended to emphasize quickness, constant movement, and “fitness,” the soccer-world term for “conditioning.” It’s a grueling, sustained exercise, exacerbated by the thick-accented shouts of the team’s sideline-pacing, German-born coach, Jürgen Klinsmann. Several minutes of flat-out effort, then a quick water break, then repeat.
Zusi glides through the five-on-five on his toes. When he receives the ball he does so with ease and handles it capably with both feet before springing it over to his teammates with pinpoint accuracy. As the other players fight for air during breaks, Zusi appears relaxed, casually squirting water into his mouth before jogging over to line up for the next round. “His cardiovascular fitness level,” observes Masa Sakihana, the U.S. team’s head fitness coach, from the sideline, “is at the very top of the current squad.”
Zusi has built a career on that cardio. As an undergrad at the University of Maryland, from 2005 to 2008, Zusi frequently topped the charts on agility drills and “beep tests”—soccer’s insidiously demanding fitness institution that requires players to shuttle between cones at ever-quickening intervals. “I’ve made fitness my top priority from early on,” he says. “I take great pride in being one of the fittest guys on the team. When you can take that factor out of the game and you don’t have to worry about it, then you can worry about other things on the field—the soccer aspect of the game.”
It is a mindset that has served him well in the pros. The head fitness coach at Zusi’s MLS team, Sporting Kansas City—a cut, hardcore exercise buff named Mateus Manoel—once coined the term “Sporting Fit,” which the franchise’s front office uses to describe the club’s ideal player: a hard worker who can thrive in a fast-moving, high-pressure system. When newcomers arrive at the team, it can take months for them to grow accustomed to SKC’s running style of play—if they do at all. In 2013, SKC midfielder Benny Feilhaber, a skilled U.S. national player, found himself languishing on the bench for much of the season due to a lack of conditioning. Zusi, meanwhile, has become the very measure of Sporting Fit.
In 2012, the team installed cameras at their stadium, allowing Manoel to monitor player movements during games. (They aren’t the first; like other major sports teams, soccer clubs have invested in analytics and player-tracking technology, a trend that began in the mid-aughts with the English Premier League.) As he mined the data, Manoel discovered that Zusi, who makes his living on the right side of the field with both offensive and defensive responsibilities, consistently covers more ground than anyone else on the team. During a single playoff match in 2013, Zusi logged more than 10 miles—the highest figure Manoel had ever seen in an MLS game. SKC won the game and advanced to the MLS Cup, where they were crowned champions.
“It’s one of the most intense positions on the field that requires he cover a lot of landscape,” says Manoel. “He’s in an unusual bracket of hyperactivity that not only requires exceptional speed and pace but also requires endurance to track up and back.”
As the Americans cast their eyes on Brazil, all of Zusi’s tracking up and back seems to have paid off. To the delight of American coaches, he arrived at the team’s camp in Los Angeles and recorded a VO2 max of 71ml/kg/min. during his physical.
“That’s exceptional for soccer,” says Manoel. “It’s the highest I’ve ever seen in the MLS.” To put that into perspective: Zusi’s body consumes oxygen as efficiently as a professional cyclist competing in the Tour de France.