Turning wide midfielders into fullbacks is nothing new for Bruce Arena, but the idea to play Graham Zusi as a fullback wasn't his idea. It was Peter Vermes who thought of deploying Zusi has a right back on occasion with Sporting Kansas City, and one of those occasions came against Arena's LA Galaxy.
Zusi enjoyed an outstanding performance on that fateful day in May, playing so well that it planted a seed in Arena's mind he would revisit several months later, after taking over as U.S. national team coach.
Nine months later, that chance encounter has given birth to Zusi's turn at right back for the national team and early signs are that the experiment is going well.
Zusi played well in last Sunday's 0-0 draw with Serbia, and another opportunity at the position is likely to follow Friday against Jamaica.
"I felt pretty good. I kept everything in front of me and felt pretty comfortable," Zusi told Goal after the Serbia match. "I'm feeling more comfortable every day, developing the relationships with the center backs and the midfielders. I'm enjoying it and I think it's a fun position. You see a ton of the ball since it's always coming through the outside backs, you get to see the entire field in front of you."
Zusi has embraced the position since he and Arena first discussed it in December, and while some other players might have balked at the idea of a position change, Zusi has bought in from the start.
"The (first) chat that we had about the position change was a very good one," Zusi said. "(Arena) mentioned some of the games he saw me play in the back and he really liked the way I was able to get forward as well. For me it wasn't an ego hit by any means. I agreed with everything he said. There is a lot of competition in the midfield on this team so any chance I can get to be in with the group obviously I'm going to take it."
Arena has made it clear he is looking for fresh faces at both fullback positions, and while there are several natural left back options vying for playing time, Arena's domestic right back choices are limited. Philadelphia's Keegan Rosenberry enjoyed a standout rookie season, but is still young and learning, while veteran Brad Evans has also been in camp, but doesn't provide the attacking qualities to be a real threat at the position.
At the moment, Newcastle defender DeAndre Yedlin looks like the leading candidate to start at right back when World Cup qualifying resumes in March, while Timmy Chandler, who is suspended for the Honduras match, is still in the mix despite having had several disappointing showings with the U.S. The pickings are slim after that, which surely led Arena to consider moving Zusi to right back after watching him play well there for Sporting KC. Having had success in the past with moving midfielders into fullback roles — with examples ranging from Tony Sanneh with the U.S. team more than a decade ago, and more recently with Robbie Rogers and the LA Galaxy — Arena saw Zusi as a good candidate for the switch, as did the coach who first showed Arena the possibility.
"There's no doubt, as I told Bruce, I think (Zusi) can absolutely play that position for the national team," Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes told Goal. "He has an incredible engine, where it's never going to be a problem for him to get up and down. He's got a great conscience for the game."
"He's done okay, it's going to take him a little bit more time, but he's bought into giving it a shot and he's shown well," Arena said.
The transition from a wide midfield role to a right back role has been a smoother one than some might have expected for Zusi, who credits Sporting KC's style of play with helping him adapt.
"At Sporting, our outside wingers are called on to defend a lot anyway so that part's not that much different," Zusi said. "The challenging part for me is knowing that I'm the last line of defense and picking and choosing the time to get forward. Everyone on the field has one-on-one battles so one-on-one defending isn't the issue. The thing to learn and work on is the instinctual positioning, where I need to be at all times, when to be aggressive and get the ball.
"A lot of it is trusting your instincts. We're at this level for a reason, everybody knows how to defend. Now it's about just learning as much as possible."
As Zusi showed against Serbia, he can offer an effective attacking threat getting forward, but Vermes believes Zusi's impressive work rate is what could make him thrive in his new role.
"A lot of people don't understand that he has an incredible engine," Vermes said. "He's a freak of nature in some respects. He can run all day long, and he's strong mentally, so even if he's tired he can push himself beyond those limits. In those positions you need guys like that because it's one thing to have the demand of getting up and down, but there's also the demands of the climate you find in MLS and in qualifying."
With World Cup qualifiers coming up in March against Honduras in San Jose, California, and then Panama in Panama City, Zusi could play himself into being a starting option for those games, and at the very least a good backup option behind Yedlin. Friday's match against Jamaica should go a long way toward helping Arena decide whether the Zusi right back experiment is one worthy of transferring into World Cup qualifying action in March, or one that will require more time to master.