CHICAGO – For soccer players, a position is a professional identity. Their preferred spot is where they feel most comfortable and where they make their living – both their home and office on the field.
So asking a player to move positions, especially if it involves switching lines, is a big deal. In order to pull it off, a player has to put their ego in the backseat, learn and re-learn different techniques and, perhaps most importantly, become positionally and tactically aware in their new spot.
More times than not, the transition doesn’t work. But when it is a success, the benefits can be huge. A positional switch can be a career jumpstart for an up-and-comer, and it can add impactful years onto the backend of a veteran’s career.
Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi hasn’t even played 20 regular-season games since moving from his longtime home on the wing to right back, but it already looks like the switch is paying off for the 30-year-old. Zusi has transitioned smoothly to SKC's back four, playing a big role on a defense that’s conceded a league-best 17 goals in 22 games. He’s still got his attacking chops, too, recording three assists in 17 MLS appearances and setting up Benny Feilhaber’s goal in SKC’s 3-2 win against Chicago on Saturday.
The move has also given the 2017 MLS All-Star a bit of a new lease on life with the US national team. The 2014 World Cup vet went the full 90 in four of six US games in their recent run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup title, and looks like a solid No. 2 at right back behind DeAndre Yedlin on Bruce Arena’s depth chart with less than a year to go until the World Cup.
“I think I’ve done enough to at least be in the picture,” Zusi told MLSsoccer.com when asked about his national team prospects. “I’m not saying the picture of being with the team in Russia necessarily, but competing for a spot. I think that’s really the most I could ask for at the moment.
“I think in the few little talks I’ve had with Bruce, I’ve made some good impressions. Obviously there’s always things to work on and get better at, but the thing I really like and enjoy about Bruce is he’s very honest with his players. Without sharing too many of the details, I think we have a pretty good relationship and I think he’s fairly happy with how I’ve progressed in that position.”
For Zusi, the biggest adjustment to right back has been rewiring his on-field instincts. He’s now got no defensive cover behind him, but can see the entire game play out in front of him. He needs to be a bit more conscious of when he gets forward, but it’s easier for him to read the match when he does venture into the attack.
“Knowing how to protect that space behind you mixed in with being aggressive with what’s in front of you has probably for me been the biggest learning curve,” he said.
The move to right back has also been a shot in the arm for the nine-year MLS veteran, keeping things fresh as he approaches a decade as a pro. He'll face a new sort of challenge on Wednesday night, when he'll have a chance to test himself against some of the most talented wingers in the world when he joins the roster challenging Real Madrid in the 2017 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target (8:30 pm ET; FS1, Univision; TSN, TVA Sports).
“I think kind of being, I wouldn’t say thrust into a new position, but seeing the game from a different perspective is kind of just – rejuvenating isn't the right word – but it’s been exciting,” he said. “It’s allowed me to kind of immerse myself in the learning process of the game again. Learning a new position from scratch is kind of been a difficult task, and it’s been something that I’ve really enjoyed.”