UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – When Jan Gunnar Solli came to the New York Red Bulls in January, head coach Hans Backe touted the Norwegian international as a versatile midfielder.
Having played the last seven years as a central, box-to-box player for two of Norway’s biggest clubs – Rosenborg and Brann – Solli is instead being forced to become accustomed to both a new league and a new position, as injuries have shifted him over to an unfamiliar right back spot. Judging from last week's two-assist performance against D.C. United, he's doing just fine at right back.
“I saw it like a challenge," Solli said of his new assignment. "The way we play here, I have a lot of space to run into – that’s one of my strengths. As a right fullback here, I’m on the ball so much.”
Solli’s transition to MLS and now a new position has been a boon for the Red Bulls. With last year’s starter Chris Albright sidelined for the start of the season due to knee surgery, Solli was handed the right back position somewhat out of need. The move to defense also allowed Finnish international Teemu Tainio, who originally trialed as a right back, to play in the central midfield, where he’s been highly effective.
In fact, Tainio has been among the best central midfielders in the league this young season, and Solli’s selfless willingness to play right back has helped the Red Bulls field a deep and talented lineup that holds possession very well.
That's true even if the new position has been a transition for Solli. The 30-year-old only played right back in limited stints in Norway, mainly moved there late in matches when his team was down and his ability to push forward was an asset in searching for an equalizer.
The intriguing factor for the Red Bulls and Backe is that while Solli has never played regularly as a right back, he does boast an interesting skill set for the back line. As a central midfielder, Solli is not only a hard-working player, but he’s more technical and savvy on the ball than most defenders. Much like Albright, a forward who early in his career converted to right back, Solli can move forward very well, distributes with confidence and strikes a nice cross.
Assistant coach Jan Halvor Halvorsen said that in Norway, Solli was the “runner in the midfield” and that has helped make him a growing part of the Red Bulls offense, even from a backline position.
“Now all the crosses are very good,” Halvorsen said. “[Two] assists is not bad as a right fullback.”
Solli’s vision from a deep, defensive position couples well with Rafa Márquez, the team’s right center back who played midfield last year for the Red Bulls. All this means that a team built on possession is now one that is deadly on the flanks as Solli pushes forward more and more into the attack.
“Especially when people see that we had a good game crossing against DC, they’ll have to close that down now,” Solli said.
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer