Few kids grow up dreaming of being a fullback. We all want to be the goalscorers or goal-stoppers, seldom giving much thought to the subtle nuances that come with playing outside back, like tracking runners, 90 minutes of responsible positioning and completing line-breaking passes to midfielders.
That sentiment was certainly true for Real Salt Lake's Brooks Lennon. He had no reason to expect anything other than professional success, replete with goals. He excelled at every youth level as a prolific forward, and his talent caught the eye of Liverpool FC, whose academy he called home for three years. He returned to RSL in 2017 and continued the only on-field life he knew: as an attacker.
But in 2018, that identity changed with little warning. With RSL down 3-1 to LAFC in their second game of the season, head coach Mike Petke needed more attack-minded options on the pitch. So he substituted Lennon on to play as an attacking fullback. They ended up losing the game 5-1, but Lennon impressed Petke. A victim of his own success, perhaps, Lennon started the next game against the New York Red Bulls at right back.
"Honestly, it wasn't even talked about at the beginning," Lennon told MLSsoccer.com. "I just went out there [against LAFC] and played really well. Then the next game against the New York Red Bulls, [Petke] started me at right back. We won that game and I played really well, so it didn't even start with a conversation. He kind of just put me in."
At Liverpool, positional ambiguity presented itself only in the form of playing on the wing or as a center forward. Not nearly as stark a contrast as winger to fullback. Is that identity shift difficult to get used to?
"One hundred percent, that was one of the hardest things for me," Lennon said of identifying as a fullback rather than a headline-grabbing forward. "Trying to wrap my head around knowing that I'm not going to be one of the top goalscorers for the team this season because I'm playing right back. Being honest, I still struggle with that," Lennon said with a laugh. "I'm doing well, I'm getting a lot of minutes, so everything is okay."
To say 'everything is okay' would be to criminally undersell Lennon's 2018.
Since the initial substitute appearance against LAFC in March, he's started every single game for his club at his new position, adding five assists while growing more comfortable with each passing minute. Last season, Lennon made 15 starts in a crowded attacking core for RSL, stocked with young talent. Now, he's one of the first names on the teamsheet as Salt Lake fight to remain above the Western Conference playoff line.
🎉 When it's your birthday AND game day. pic.twitter.com/LuG0INsuSw— Real Salt Lake (@RealSaltLake) September 22, 2018
Their work to make the playoffs isn't done yet, as the LA Galaxy sit just two points behind RSL with three games remaining. Salt Lake have two home games left in their final three plus a trip to Portland, one of two times they play the Timbers before season's end. On Saturday (9:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), the Utahns host Portland, who are only two points ahead of Lennon & Co., putting their fate in their own hands.
"It all starts with this weekend," Lennon said. "With two more home games, and especially playing against Portland, it's super important. Everyone knows that three points is a must for Saturday."
The immediate focus is making the playoffs, but on the horizon for Lennon is a potential debut with the U.S. national team. Petke recently said Lennon has the ability to play right back for the USMNT, which runs congruent with the player's beliefs.
"I agree with him," Lennon said with little hesitation. "I definitely think I have the quality to be getting called in for the national team, hopefully that comes sooner rather than later."
Brooks Lennon's conversion to fulltime right back maybe hasn't gotten enough pub. He's been very, very good for @RealSaltLake over the last 20-ish games on both sides of the ball, and occasionally game-breaking when he pushes forward. #SKCvRSL— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 30, 2018
There's still time if it doesn't happen immediately. Having just turned 21 years old in September, Lennon has his whole career ahead of him as one of the bright young players in the league. He was recognized as such, coming at No. 15 on MLSsoccer.com's 22 under 22. Before the first half of the rankings were revealed Wednesday, Lennon was asked whether or not he expected to himself among the league's young stars.
"Yeah I do. Personally, I think I should be pretty low on that list, but that's just my opinion," Lennon laughed. "But I should definitely be on that list."
Lennon added that he expects a handful of his teammates to join him on the list, such as Justen Glad, Jefferson Savarino, Aaron Herrera, Danilo Acosta and Sebastian Saucedo. And MLS Rookie of the Year candidate Corey Baird narrowly missed the age-eligibility cutoff for 22 under 22.