CARSON, Calif. – An occasional experiment for Sporting Kansas City has turned into a full-time position with the US national team for Graham Zusi.
After playing a few games at right back for Sporting, Zusi now finds himself manning the role for the US as coach Bruce Arena seeks to address his concerns with the fullback spots this month.
It’s a move Zusi's USMNT teammate DaMarcus Beasley made earlier in his career, and one Robbie Rogers made in recent years for the LA Galaxy. Zusi says the hardest part is switching to a defense-first mentality, but he feels the adjustment is going well.
“I treat every single day as a learning situation,” said Zusi, “to get better at that position. I think the difficult part of it is just the instinctual positioning, where you need to be based on the rest of the line. Realizing that you are the last line of defense and not the first bit of pressure.”
It was against the LA Galaxy, then coached by Arena, last year that Zusi made his SKC debut at right back. Having already gone through the transition with Rogers, Arena thought the switch was worth pursuing.
“[Graham Zusi]’s a good player,” said Arena, “and he’s more athletic than people think. Good player, can pass, can think. Physically he’s a lot better than people think. It might be the right spot for him with our group.”
Although Zusi expects he’ll remain a winger for SKC, the switch for the USMNT looks to be a permanent one – this despite the fact that putting him at right back was Peter Vermes’ idea to begin with.
“Peter came to me midweek at one point,” said Zusi, “and let me know what they were thinking for the weekend game. It made sense based on how we play at home, our outside backs see so much of the attack that it was just another added piece of attack for us.
“Outside backs see a whole lot of the ball, when you get it you’re always facing forward; you get to see the whole field. And when you do go forward, a lot of times you’re unaccounted for. That part of it was quite fun for me.”
Often a focal point for opposing defenses in an attacking wing role in KC, Zusi stands to benefit from additional space and favorable matchups in which to unleash his deliveries. So far, the feedback from Arena and the rest of the coaching staff has been positive.
“We talk here and there about little circumstances,” said Zusi. “A lot of it is positioning, where you need to be, just off the shoulder of the center back when the ball’s on the opposite side of the field. And staying aggressive defensively when the ball’s on your side as well.”