When the roster for the annual January Camp is announced, most of the focus usually settles on the new faces whose domestic league success has earned them a shot with the National Team. This time around, however, it was a World Cup veteran who turned most heads with his inclusion – or more specifically, with the position listed next to his name on the sheet.
Veteran midfielder Graham Zusi, who has carved out a solid career as a winger for both Sporting KC and the MNT, has been added to the group of defenders called into the National Training Center for the camp and two friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica.
Zusi’s debut at right back actually came against then LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena on May 1 at Sporting Park. The MNT winger gave an assured performance in that match, causing trouble up the wing when he provided the assist to Brad Davis’ 30th minute strike before locking down the right side in a 1-1 draw.
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Arena remarked post-game that decision to play Zusi there “was interesting” and it seemed to have left an impression.
“To be honest with you, I enjoyed playing right back quite a bit,” Zusi told ussoccer.com during the first week of camp. “It’s something that I’m embracing for sure.”
Vermes deployed Zusi there a second time in Sporting KC’s Aug. 20 match against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, saying the 30-year-old “was outstanding” in the 2-0 win.
Zusi’s certainly not the first outside midfielder that has moved to defense. Four-time World Cup veteran DaMarcus Beasley filled in at left back at different points in his international career before making the full-time switch there for the U.S. in 2013. The crafty winger went on to make the position his own the next two years, featuring there during all four matches at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Recalling his own conversion, Beasley said the most challenging part is learning to work as an overall unit with the other defenders.
“Mostly it’s just being in sync with your line – syncing with your center back and the entire back four – that part takes time,” he told ussoccer.com. “Obviously, you have individual qualities you can bring to that position, but the most important part is making sure you’re in sync with your left or right center back. That’s the battle you have to overcome.”
MNT assistant coach Kenny Arena worked on exactly that with the team’s defenders during Sunday’s training session, with both Beasley and fellow left back Greg Garza providing Zusi tips on how to work in the setup.
“He’s learning,” Beasley said. “He’s smart and experienced enough that he’ll be fine. He’s good going forward, defending one-on-one and he’s quick as well, so he shouldn’t have a problem making the switch.”
For his part, Zusi also recognizes the shift could ensure he sees more playing time going forward.
“In the National Team there’s quite a bit of competition, especially in the midfield, so the more positions I can play, I think the better for me,” he said. “I do enjoy the position -- it brings some freedom to my game. Outside backs see a lot of the ball and going forward I think Bruce is expecting to get me into the attack, so that fits my game as well.”