Is there No Place on the Pitch for Zusi?

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In the book “Is There No Place on Earth For Me,” author Susan Sheehan narrates a year in the life of Sylvia Frumkin, a brilliant young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Frumkin’s intelligence butts heads both with her own limitations, but also society’s. No single mental institution can address all her symptoms at once, so she floats from place to place. Sheehan’s story underlies an important point: why does our society waste the life of a talented young woman like Frumkin? Why can’t we recast at least one corner of the Earth to fit her needs?

Despite the USMNT surviving a PR black eye, a blizzard, and Costa Rica, larger problems remain. Technical two-footed and ball-playing midfielders ask the same question of United States soccer as Frumkin of the world: is there no place for me?

Since Tab Ramos, the US has been slow to appreciate and then adequately utilize diminutive, technical midfielders. Some love Claudio Reyna, who starred for the US national team at the 2002 World Cup. Others point out his disappointing MLS tenure at the New York Red Bulls near the end of his career. Two years ago, Jose Francisco Torres entered the fray as the love/hate pivote in the US talent pool. Some loved his two-footed passing and awareness. Others criticized his lack of tackling. I won’t touch on Torres, but I will look at two talented midfielders in the USMNT pool: Graham Zusi and Brad Davis.

A disclaimer. I grew up in Kansas City, a few hours from St Louis, Missouri. Every high school player in my area was groomed for and dreamed of playing at St. Louis University, known as SLU, a longstanding power. Brad Davis went to SLU. He know plays for and captains the Houston Dynamo. His vision, touch, and range of passing offer a spark of creativity to his team. However, he plays wide-left, the touch line in a 4-4-2. Thus, a lot of his skill gets pushed out wide – he whips in corners and crosses, but from afar. Yes, he’s scored and attempted some screamers, but I ask – is this the best fit? Is this the only fit?

Enter the Zusi. Graham had a monster season last year for Sporting KC and earned playing time with the US National Team. Relying heavily on the now-departed Roger Espinoza, Kansas City played a high octane, full court press that relies on a 4-3-3. I call it the “arrow offense” – it consists of a wide arrow with Kei Kamara wide left, C.J. Sapong at the point, and Jacob Peterson on the other flank. In the middle, Graham Zusi, Espinoza, and Julio Cesar form a tight triangle that hunts and presses in a pack. The formation also allows either Zusi or Espinoza to burst into the attack as a second forward when KC is in possession.

At least until the second game against Houston in last year’s MLS playoffs. Peter Vermes pushed Graham Zusi out wide as a winger. Zusi had some nice touches and plays, but also disappeared for stretches of the game. It was inevitable. Wingers stay wide and wait for the game to come to them. Conversely, central midfielders hunt for the ball all game and are involved for 90 minutes. The two positions also require different athletic abilities: a winger should have a solid 20 meter sprint, while a central midfielder needs solid balance, two good feet, strong endurance, and a quick first step.

Thus, I like to think of how Brad Davis would play in a 4-3-3. Or, conversely, a 4-2-2-2 where wide wingers such as him tuck inside on offense and act as play-makers. From the center of the field, players such as Zusi and Davis can use their range of passing to switch the fields. These style of passes open up a field and a defense, but don’t appear often enough in MLS or for the US national team. Centrally, they can also be involved more of the game and play quick smart passes to alleviate pressure. In sum, I view Vermes’ 4-3-3 as the best way to utilize technical players, not tossing them to the wings and waiting for crosses. Claudio Reyna and US Soccer agree. US Soccer’s youth curriculum now focuses on the 4-3-3.

This is a great plan for the future, but what about the here-and-now? In the USMNT World Cup qualifiers at home, we’ll need assured possession and some refined, creative passing. Klinsi has shown lots of love for ball-winning central midfielders, but little interest in attacking wingers. His most offensive formation is charitably described as a 4-3-1-2, where 3 holding midfielders shield the defense, and one wide, somewhat creative midfielder has a bit of freedom to run at defenders. This is a far cry from a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-2-2. I know our center backs are young and need a bit of shielding, but keeping the ball is a great form of indirect defense.

Other teams have used the 4-3-3 and 4-2-2-2 to great success. At last year’s European Championships, Portugal fielded a lethal counterattacking 4-3-3 with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani on the wings. Cristiano can thrive almost anywhere and under any system, but the 4-3-3 brought the best out of Nani – it limited his defensive responsibilities and offensively allowed him to cut inside and shoot, as opposed to just running and crossing. A similar system was Carlo Ancellotti’s Christmas tree of Kaka, Seedorf and Inzaghi at AC Milan.

When he played for Villareal and Malaga, Santi Cazora played outside mid in a 4-2-2-2. Defensively, he still tracked the opposing wingback, but offensively he was expected to tuck inside just behind the the two strikers. Bob Bradley flirted with this approach and played Donovan and De psey nominally out wide. Ever since Steve Samoson’s failure in France 98 with a 3-6-1, most US coaches have struck with two forwards. Predictably, this means less spots for midfielders, especially the short and crafty hybrids.

Despite the US talent pool’s potential and models abroad for success, the current answer to “is there a place on the pitch for Zusi” is too often a “no” and an infrequent “sometimes.” Even when technical players get on the field, they get miscast into awkward roles in defensive formations. No matter how hard you push, a square peg won’t fit into a circular hole. It will be years before the 4-3-3 takes hold at the youth level, and it may be decades before a coach confidently fields the lineup. Even England, a nation with top players and a more varied soccer history, has stubbornly stuck to the tried and  true 4-4-2.

Can the US skip past the English and put to bed the need for banks of four? Maybe. But I wouldn’t bank on it. At least not against Mexico at the Azteca.

2 thoughts on “Is there No Place on the Pitch for Zusi?

  1. Great article. There’s a couple things we seem to currently lack play a 4-3-3 formation. One is speed down those flanks. Without Donovan, there isn’t many other speedy players who can drive down that wing, which is necessary in the formation. Also, with Altidore out of form for the national side, we were lacking that proper hold up forward which is also integral to the success of a 4-3-3 formation. However, Jozy looks to be coming around again. But like you said, the formation seems to be one for the future…especially with speedy wingers like Gatt coming up. Still if Donovan is ever part of the squad again, I think the formation could work. If Jozy can keep improving his form for the national side, Donovan and Dempsey could play the wings, with Bradley, Jones, and Zusi manning the midfield. It would also allow Dempsey and Zusi to rotate positions throughout a match perfectly.

  2. I wanted to show some love to Zusi, but I’ve got this letter that tells me I have to keep at least 500 feet away at all times.