Zusi at forefront of Arena's fullback overhaul for USMNT

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Kyle Terada
The converted midfielder has seized his opportunity at right back as the U.S. national team moves away from Jurgen Klinsmann's preferred options

HARRISON, N.J. — Graham Zusi's reinvention came with hazy expectations.

Ideally, his offseason conversion from attacking midfielder to right back would prolong his U.S. national team career. More realistically, the Sporting Kansas City veteran faced a long road to surpassing established options at his new position.

After appearing in a pair of winter friendlies in the back line, Zusi saw himself snubbed from coach Bruce Arena's squad for World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama in March — even with natural right backs DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj sidelined, and Timmy Chandler suspended for the first match.

Then Fabian Johnson withdrew with a hamstring issue, prompting a late call-up for Zusi. Michael Orozco didn't travel to Panama because of his own injury. Geoff Cameron, who started the 6-0 win over Honduras at right back, was scratched as well.

Suddenly, Zusi was the last man standing at right back — putting Arena's experiment to the test much sooner than anticipated.

"I'm glad that I've been able to play in those kind of matches," Zusi said. "They can really grow you as a player and put you in situations that you need to see to get better and to play at that next level. Those kind of experiences are what’s going to make me a better player at that position."

Graham Zusi quote GFX

Zusi delivered an up-and-down outing as the U.S. earned a 1-1 draw on the road, helping stabilize what had been a perilous World Cup qualifying campaign. In July, he started four CONCACAF Gold Cup matches — including the semifinal and final — as the U.S. won the regional crown.

He's also made the switch for Sporting KC, earning an All-Star nod while making 18 appearances this season. Now a right back for club and country, the 31-year-old finds himself honing his defensive prowess while continuing to contribute the technical ability that allowed him to make three starts in midfield during the 2014 World Cup.

"The way the game's going the ball's at the [fullbacks'] feet a lot, they're making a lot of big decisions passing out of the back, decisions they have to make right," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard told Goal. "When you can have a midfielder transition back into a fullback you get the best of both worlds. You get speed, you get movement, you get good ball possession, and ultimately they dig in and they learn how to defend."

Zusi added: "As a defender you have to take what's behind you first and foremost. Both in Kansas City and here they're looking for the outside backs to be creative and get into the attack as well and really help build the play. Outside back is typically a position that sees a lot of the ball, so [Arena] wants guys that are comfortable going forward."

Graham Zusi USA Gold Cup

With Yedlin again sidelined, this time by a hamstring injury, Zusi seems poised for perhaps his toughest test yet at right back — a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Friday at Red Bull Arena.

In selecting Zusi and Lichaj as his right backs for the match against the Ticos, as well as Tuesday's trip to face Honduras, Arena continued to overhaul the fullback corps that had been established under Jurgen Klinsmann.

While the former U.S. coach typically chose to play Fabian Johnson at outside back, Arena prefers the 29-year-old at his natural position in midfield. Klinsmann favorites Orozco and Edgar Castillo have faded from the picture. Makeshift left backs Matt Besler and Tim Ream are back in central defense.

And Timmy Chandler, who started over Yedlin for Klinsmann's final two matches in November, sat out the June qualifiers because of injury before being omitted for the upcoming matches. Arena, meanwhile, has revived the seemingly dead international careers of Lichaj and DaMarcus Beasley while introducing Jorge Villafana to the fold, in addition to steering Zusi's right back renaissance.

Explaining his selection, Arena said: "All of the players that are on our roster for this competition have been with us this year. So I think it makes it easy for us to transition the team into these two games. One of the reasons Tim Chandler isn't here is he hasn't been with us in 2017. He's a very good player."

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Even if the Eintracht Frankfurt man lacks chemistry with his U.S. teammates amid a prolonged national team absence, it speaks to Arena's faith in Zusi that the coach feels comfortable choosing him over a Bundesliga starter.

Around the U.S. locker room, it's clear Zusi is no longer seen as an experiment. Eight months in, he can safely be called an international-caliber right back.

"He's a veteran guy," Howard said. "He's there to play, he's there to be a part of this team and he very rarely, if ever, lets us down."

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