KANSAS CITY, Kan. (Editorial)- Graham Zusi made a fruitful move to the backline of Sporting KC in 2017. It didn’t mark the end of his creativity and influence in the side. In turn, it enhanced it. Here is how Graham Zusi became the best fullback in the leauge, in less than two years.
How Graham Zusi Became MLS’ Best Fullback
Going into the 2017 USMNT January Camp, Graham Zusi was in the middle of an offseason that followed another heartbreaking loss in the MLS Cup Playoffs, and for the second year in a row, at the hands of the future MLS Cup Champion. Conversely, the USMNT was in the middle of a transition from Jurgen Klinsmann to Bruce Arena, and deep in a hole for 2018 World Cup Qualifying.
Graham Zusi saw his place in the USMNT slip in the months prior to the National team camp. Arena, however had a different idea for him though.
The precursor to Bruce Arena’s eventual phone call, was what many at the time thought would be a one off. Zusi’s first appearance at right back was against the LA Galaxy in May of 2016. That game was probably more memorable for Ashley Cole receiving two yellows in less than 30 seconds. But, that’s where the, “Graham Zusi, American Right-Back” journey began.
“It was going to be kind of a ‘one game’… not an experiment…but we saw something against an opponent that we thought we could exploit by bringing me onto the backline.” Zusi told Last Word on Soccer.
“At that point it was something where I was going to be bombing forward anyway. So it wasn’t something like, ‘Yeah, you’re switching to defender.’ It was basically a one game thing and it happened to be against the LA Galaxy at that time.”
Zusi went a full 90 minutes at the position, and would add one more game there during that 2016 season. Bruce took notice, and called Zusi in as a Right Back.
The Experiment Becomes Permanent
The USMNT had no depth at the fullback position. DeAndre Yedlin had also been struggling to find his place at Newcastle leading into that January Camp. With the question mark there, and a chance to experiment, Bruce called in Zusi as a right back.
After that January camp, Sporting KC had introduced Latif Blessing and Gerso Fernandes. Sporting KC saw their opportunity to get everyone on the field with Zusi at right back. In turn, it’s helped advance their evolution as a possession based team.
“We have always embarked on trying to be a possession based team,” Peter Vermes told Last Word on Soccer. “I think the fact that he plays right back now has enhanced that just because he’s very good on the ball.”
You’re taking a winger who is under pressure all the time, has to beat people one on one, then you put him into a position where he’s not under a lot of pressure. It enhances not only the position, but some things we can do as a team.”
Obviously there was learning curve for Zusi. But, he credits the team’s commitment to defense as a aid to his transition.
“That part of it wasn’t too difficult to grasp,” Zusi said. “We expect every single person on the field to do their part defensively. When I was in the midfield, it was no different than where I am now. Kind of grasping that part of it wasn’t too difficult.”
“Play like Marcelo”
Zusi didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare and practice at the position prior to that January Camp. Watching some of the best in the world helped a little though.
“I remember in January camp, I’m not sure if he was joking or not, Bruce said, ‘Yeah, just play like Marcelo.’” Zusi said. “I think I probably laughed at that point because obviously Marcelo is the best outside back in the world. You laugh about it, but then even as I watch games now, I find myself specifically watching what he does, and his movements.”
Zusi tends to come inside more than most MLS fullbacks, and maraudes forward more than most as well. He’s currently second in MLS for attempted passes in the attacking third of the field with 683, courtesy of American Soccer Analysis. The nearest defender is Columbus’ Harrison Afful with 500. That type of influence and plan of attack is honestly quite similar to what a player like Marcelo does. It’s the mold of the modern fullback.
Zusi leads all MLS defenders in assists (12) and chances created (115) since he made the move to right back.
Zusi plays more inside and advanced than any other fullback in the league. This table, courtesy of Data shared by American Soccer Analysis confirms it:
Zusi also has the highest touch% of any fullback with a minimum of 1000 minutes, and has played about 402 passes than the nearest player (Harrison Afful). So what goes into Zusi covering so much ground, both moving forward and moving inward?
“What we try to do as players, and what our staff and coaches try to get us to do as much as possible is read what the game gives you early on in the game,” Zusi said.
I think a lot of people, and teams, rely on halftime changes to adjust positionally or tactically. What he’s [Peter Vermes] really has hammered into us is, ‘don’t wait ‘till halftime to do these things.’ Read what the game is giving you, and what you can exploit. I think from my position it’s maybe even a little bit easier to see those things, because everything is in front of me. I can see the whole field, I can see what’s going on as we’re keeping the ball, as we’re swinging it around, I can put myself in a spot where it can be most beneficial to the team. Sometimes it’s getting wide and overlapping the winger, or sometimes it’s staying inside and letting our winger stay up against the line. It’s a game by game thing. Really it’s recognizing what the game is giving you.”
Moving as One
Zusi’s attacking prowess never needed much fine tuning though. It was the defensive actions, and what that felt like in that position that was his biggest learning curve.
“I think initially, at the very beginning it was constantly being connected to the entire backline,” Zusi told Last Word on Soccer.
Moving really as one throughout the entire game, constantly seeing where they are and putting yourself in line with them, that was something that before, there was always someone behind you when you are higher up the field. Now we’re the last line of defense, and you really have to be wary of the space in behind you, knowing whether to step or drop. Those are things where the tendencies come. Now, for me, it’s almost second nature. Learning those things was just different. I wouldn’t say very difficult, it was just very different.”
To say the defensive learning curve has been quick is an understatement. Since his move to the backline, Zusi has been a part of 21 regular season clean-sheets. That’s second only to teammate, Ilie Sanchez, who has 22.
For all the success that Zusi has accrued at the position plenty on the outside were skeptical it would work. Plenty saw Saad Abdul-Salaam as the young full-back of the future for them. But Zusi has surpassed all outsider expectations of what his move to right back would be. Peter Vermes, however, isn’t shocked one bit.
“It’s not surprising to me that he’s done so well at the position,” Vermes said. “It takes a person that has a really good attitude, will play anywhere, and understands the game. The other piece is that he has a great work ethic. So I’m not really surprised.”