New role, who dis? MLS players thriving in new positions in 2019

Latif Blessing scores goal - LAFC

Remember that time when, for literally his entire professional career both for Sporting Kansas City and the US national team, Graham Zusi was a creative midfielder or winger, not a fullback? 

In 2017, SKC head coach Peter Vermes took one of his best players and decided to change course, turning the then-30-year-old into a right back. It may have been unthinkable, even counterintuitive on the surface at the time. Sure, Zusi worked hard, but how would he be able to cope with direct, pacey wingers? Especially for a player that never had blazing pace and had recently celebrated a 30th birthday, it was a weighty risk to improve distribution from the back.

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Peter Vermes and Graham Zusi | USA Today Sports Images

But it's worked, particularly in the possession-based system Vermes has deployed since that time. Having a natural attacker playing fullback is a real asset. Vermes took some of Zusi's best qualities that made him such a good midfielder – passing range, vision, calm under pressure – as well as a few that may have been overlooked, like work rate, soccer IQ and not being a total liability in defense, and guessed correctly that it would all translate quite well to right back in SKC's particular tactical setup. 

It happens more often than you might think, this type of changing of a player's position seemingly out of nowhere.

Last season, Brooks Lennon turned from winger to right back almost by accident. He explained to that it wasn't planned, but he did well in a cameo while Real Salt Lake were chasing a game and Mike Petke ran with it. In that same team, Damir Kreilach had been a defensive midfielder for much of his career. Then he got to RSL and slowly moved up the field until he was a false nine of sorts. Who could have seen that coming?

This season, several players are excelling in new roles across MLS.

Latif Blessing, winger to center mid

The cover star for players thriving in new roles this season can't be anyone other than Blessing. He's always been versatile, even popping up as emergency fullback at times for LAFC. But injuries created a need, Blessing's elasticity provided an option and head coach Bob Bradley had the vision to see Blessing's skills at a favorable conversion rate to the middle of the park.

LAFC's high-tempo system is perfect for Blessing in the midfield. He has done better than anyone could have reasonably expected, of course, but his ability to cover ground, killer transitional game and natural creativity is perfect alongside Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta

A similar scenario to Blessing is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Liverpool. Taking a solid, if unspectacular, winger and turning him into a dynamic, game-changing central midfielder in the right system.  

James Sands, defensive mid to center back

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James Sands (right) has shut down several elite strikers this year, including Wayne Rooney | USA Today Sports Images

All things considered, this is a pretty natural progression because Dome Torrent shifted New York City FC to a back three formation. Instead of dropping in possession to split the center backs and receive passes, Sands just starts there now.

That's not to diminish the heightened defensive responsibility nor make light of an 18-year-old learning and excelling at a different position on the fly, of course. When Torrent switched to the back three, NYCFC started turning more draws into wins. For a team looking to possess the ball, a natural center mid in the center of defense is useful. And he has coped with opposing strikers well, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Now the question remains: Is his future in defense or midfield? 

Ryan Hollingshead, left back to ... everywhere

This hasn't been talked about nearly enough: Hollingshead has played left back, right back, center back, right mid, left mid and central mid for FC Dallas this season. Think about that! What an asset for Luchi Gonzalez. 

I'll let Bobby Warshaw take it from here. He wrote this about Hollingshead when calling him the club's best player through the first half of the season:  

"How can you not give props to someone who has played five different positions in 15 games? Hollingshead started the season at left back, and has since played left wing, right back, center back, and defensive midfield. At none of those spots has he looked out of place. FC Dallas have been hit hard by international call ups and injuries, and Hollingshead has helped them keep their heads above water."

Pedro Santos, winger to No. 10

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Pedro Santos | USA Today Sports Images

A newer development since Federico Higuain got injured, but early returns on Santos playing through the center of the pitch are solid. Will it be sustainable?

If the Designated Player can raise his goal levels to take some of the burden off Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew SC may salvage their injury-riddled campaign. This is one to keep an eye on moving forward. Head coach Caleb Porter prefers to play 4-2-3-1 and Santos is looking like a surprisingly handy replacement at No. 10 for Higuain. 

Tommy Thompson, center mid to right back

One of the key players in Matias Almeyda's San Jose Earthquakes revolution is Tommy Thompson since the midfielder has moved to right back. It's not quite the same as Zusi swapping central midfield, mind you, as the two players have different skill sets and are operating in vastly different systems.  

Thompson's tenacity and work rate has been perfect to play fullback in Almeyda's hectic man-marking system. Space is created over the pitch and it relies on your players winning duels, wherever they are. Who better for that than a combative but also skillful central midfielder?

This is another that falls under the "is this sustainable?" category, though. Not performance-based, of course. But with Nick Lima on the roster and Almeyda with just one transfer window to bring in reinforcements, will they bring in a solution at left back to allow Lima back to the right? Will they bring in a natural right back? Will Thompson fit into Almeyda's plans in midfield? Questions galore, but we can enjoy Thompson's stellar performances in the interim.