Talking Tactics: Zusi, Donovan & the tweener conundrum

Anybody watching Sunday’s romp and stomp down at Pizza Hut Park, where Graham Zusi went bonkers on Dallas with one quality goal, one spectacular goal and one nice assist, might have been asking where this guy has been hiding. This is Zusi’s third year in the league, after all, and yet he has started just 15 games.

Your answer would come in one word: ‘tweener.

That’s the colloquial term for a player who doesn’t fit conveniently into the cookie cutter roles known so well to the game. For example, some guys are clearly center backs (think Tim Ream). Some have the classic look of a holding midfielder (Pablo Mastroeni). Others are target men through and through (Brian Ching). But the ‘tweeners aren’t really “this” and aren’t really “that.” Rather, they possess a hybrid skill set that rests somewhere in between.

From a tactical standpoint, coaches do themselves favors by being flexible, perhaps altering roles and responsibilities of the ‘tweeners and the players around them, hammering out the best possible fit. Depending on the player’s quality, coaches might even design hybrid formations around their hybrid performer.

Zusi is a great example. He has played as a central midfielder and as a winger in Kansas City’s 4-3-3, although he doesn’t seem to fit neatly into either role (which helps explain his limited number of starts). Nor does he seem well suited as an outside midfielder in a 4-4-2, but that’s where he played on Sunday as Sporting coach Peter Vermes adjusted tactics for the night. Zusi has always been a terrific ball striker, going back to the days when he led Maryland claim an NCAA championship. But he isn’t exactly a zippy wing presence who lives for his next chance to run by fullbacks, a la the Nyassi brothers. So you might think Zusi would struggle along the outside. Clearly, he didn’t on Sunday.

WATCH: Zusi's 45-yard bomb

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His teammate, Davy Arnaud, has always been in the same boat. He has the ambition to get into the attack like an attacking midfielder, but also has the grit and acumen to sit in the middle like a holding midfielder. He played Sunday as the second forward, behind C.J. Sapong, but has spent most of the year centrally in midfield.

Other good examples are all over the US soccer establishment – including a couple of big names featured Tuesday at Livestrong Sporting Park in Gold Cup play.

Landon Donovan has found a home, more or less, as an outside midfielder in the 4-4-2, his spot for club and country. But Donovan was almost 10 years into his professional career before he took up that flank position, working toward the middle when in possession and freeing the outside channel for fullbacks to provide the width. Previously he has been used as a second striker, as an attacking midfielder and as a wide midfielder with more responsibility to stretch the field.

US attacker Clint Dempsey is another one. Going back to his days in New England, Steve Nicol sometimes struggled to pinpoint Dempsey’s best spot. Coaches at Fulham (not to mention Bradley here) have scratched their heads similarly, straining to determine whether Dempsey needs to be up top—where he seems able to score any which way possible—or back in the midfield—where he can run at defenses like a freight train.

Elsewhere, Joel Lindpere in New York and Alvaro Fernandez in Seattle have a bit of ‘tweener in them. In both cases, coaches have concluded that nominal placement on the left side of the midfield is best. That is, their starting positions are along the left, but they pinch inside liberally in their teams’ typical diamond formations. (The versatile Lindpere actually played centrally in a “straight line” midfield over the weekend as Red Bulls coach Hans Backe adjusted to myriad absences.)

These are all ‘tweeners who have found success by blending their skills and responsibilities. But there is the other side of the ‘tweener coin, the less shiny one. Some ’tweeners languish in lesser roles because they just aren’t quite good enough to justify modification of team tactics. RSL’s Arturo Alvarez comes to mind. The Salvadoran international has never quite found his place, working the field as a wide midfielder, as a forward and even occasionally as a centrally stationed creator.

Alvarez these days is consigned to a bench role, one that Zusi was all too familiar with until Sunday. Suddenly, all that versatility became a real asset.