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Preseason Spotlight: The Zusi-Gerso Connection

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One’s a one-club man. Another just arrived. Both are Designated Players. How do they connect on the field?

MLS: Desert Diamond Cup-New York Red Bulls vs Sporting KC Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

If Sporting Kansas City’s preseason lineups are to be believed—and considering the pretty clear-cut delineation between the starters and the second string in the making of those lineups—then come Opening Day in just a little over a week’s time, Sporting fans should expect to see the club’s former right winger, Graham Zusi, lining up at right back behind newly-signed right winger Gerso Fernandes.

The placing of Gerso on the right is no small detail—he mostly played on the left for Belenenses in Portugal’s Liga NOS, where he was more of a playmaker than a goalscorer—something Peter Vermes highlighted during the recent Fan Forum. But by deploying Gerso on the right, where he has repeatedly shown an Arjen Robben-esque tendency to sprint forward, pull the ball onto his favored left foot, and have a shot on goal, Vermes is telegraphing his intentions for Gerso in 2017: he wants to see the newly-signed Designated Player not only create goals, but score them.

Vermes has a demonstrated tendency to use inverted wingers as goal-scoring threats when he has deployed them, going all the way back to another Designated Player, Mexican forward Omar Bravo, who, as a right-footed player, spent much of his lone season in Kansas City playing at left wing (though, in fairness, he would often switch sides with whoever was playing at right wing at the time, usually either Kei Kamara or C.J. Sapong). Bravo co-led the team that year with nine goals (side note: Bravo just turned up with Phoenix Rising of the USL).

The most recent notable iteration of that inverted winger in Vermes’s 4-3-3 system is, of course, Krisztian Nemeth, a striker by trade who also shifted out to the left wing for Vermes and rewarded Vermes and the Sporting faithful with 11 goals (including MLS’s Goal of the Year) in 28 appearances before kicking off the most bitter divorce this side of the Maury Povich show.

What does this expectation for Gerso, from Vermes, have to do with Zusi?* Firstly, it serves to illustrate just how far Zusi himself has fallen from form out on the wing—he simply has not been able to provide the sort of attacking output of a Bravo or a Nemeth--or even a pre-World Cup Zusi—for a few years now.

*While USMNT boss Bruce Arena seems enamored at present with the prospect of Zusi at right back—likely in no small part that Zusi played that role extremely well for Sporting in two of its games against Arena’s Los Angeles Galaxy last year—the implications for Zusi will be looked at here through an exclusively SKC lens. The implications for the national team--especially since the USMNT, unlike SKC, have DeAndre Yedlin among other established and in-form right backs—certain merits consideration, but that is a topic for another column.

But secondly, Zusi was never quite the sort of inverted winger Vermes normally prefers to begin with—yes, Zusi has an exceptionally powerful shot (one that, as evinced against New England this week, he is still very much capable of using), but he lacked the clinical nature of either Bravo or Nemeth—Bravo rarely had to overpower goalkeepers to score goals, and Nemeth had mastered the art of simply pushing the ball past the keeper to the far post instead of beating the opposing custodian for power.

And lest we forget—as the season pushed onward, the most frequent face behind Nemeth at left back was not the defensive stalwart Seth Sinovic, but the quicker and more attack-minded Amadou Dia—despite Dia’s own relative inexperience and Nemeth’s status as the biggest defensive liability in the starting lineup by a country mile.

Now consider Zusi’s own profile as a defender—while he will not win any races against speedier wingers these days, and he has a great deal to do in picking up the positioning nuances of his new job—he has showed a yeoman’s willingness to not only do the dirty work of tracking back, marking, and forcing turnovers, but also to embrace the role of a more withdrawn play-maker rather than the guy who would simply charge in at opposing defenders one-on-one, which was his (increasingly unsuccessful) M.O. for the past few years.

Moving Zusi to right back—even though it has engendered plenty of questions in addition to the ones highlighted in the previous paragraph (and the jury is still out for this particular writer on that particular experiment, if for no other reason than Zusi’s Designated Player salary makes him wildly overpaid for a fullback in MLS)—does have the notable advantage of allowing Zusi to return to what are probably his best remaining attacking tools: high-powered shots from long range* and late crosses into the opposing box.

*A word about such shots: I really don’t like seeing players take them, even though they will occasionally result in highlight-reel golazos, simply because those shots are such low-percentage propositions and, unlike in basketball, a goal in soccer counts for the same number of points no matter where from the field of play the goal is scored. By pointing this out as one of Zusi’s remaining attacking strengths, I am not endorsing him simply lighting up the opposing goal whenever he gets the opportunity but rather, if there is to be a Spork taking those sort of shots, I would prefer that player be him.

For the former, let’s use the golazo against the Revolution as a case example: as Zusi gathers and strikes the ball, Gerso is deployed wide left, prepared to take a short pass from Zusi and, likely, push it onto his left foot for a play into the box or a shot in his own right. Zusi instead pushes forward and, seeing that no Revs defender is quickly closing him down, chooses to take the shot.

Now, simply reverse the roles (putting Zusi in Gerso’s position on the field and vice versa), and you can see why Zusi’s style of pushing forward to whip in crosses is appealing for someone like Gerso if both are playing on the right: Gerso can use Zusi as a play-making outlet or take a similar shot himself. Indeed, that is what happened several times in the first preseason match against the Colorado Rapids, as Gerso’s incisive cuts inward left Zusi gobs of space to charge up the right-hand touchline. In a nod to the latter strength—of crossing passes into the box—Zusi nearly set up a Sinovic goal with an inch-perfect pass from the right-sided corner with the space created for him by one of Gerso’s runs, and but for a foul by Latif Blessing, Sporting likely would have scored on the play.

It’s classic winger-fullback play that clubs around the world that use the 4-3-3 formation often use, but it is something that Sporting were not able to make much productive use of in 2016 with the unavailability of veteran wingers Justin Mapp and Brad Davis for long portions of the season. And by pairing Gerso Fernandes not with Seth Sinovic on the left, but with Graham Zusi on the right, Peter Vermes is sending a clear signal that the days of tepid attacking output from the wings are to be left behind in the 2016 campaign, and that he will be expecting dynamism and scoring from the outside of the formation, as well as from its interior in Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber, to carry Sporting into its 2017 season.

That fact alone should signal to Sporting fans that this offseason stands to be a far more successful offseason than the last one. And while questions about Zusi at right back justifiably remain, the role he now inhabits in his relationship with Gerso ought to be a positive development for the team as a whole.