In December, Graham Zusi took a phone call from United States men’s national team coach Bruce Arena. Over the brief conversation, Arena apprised Zusi of plans to shift him to a defensive role for an upcoming national team camp.
The move — first tested by Sporting Kansas City last summer — appears to have stuck for the MLS season. Zusi spent the bulk of the preseason playing right back for Sporting KC, and his transformation headlines the defensive storylines to watch in 2017.
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It’s a tricky category for the defense.
On the one hand, there appears to be plenty of familiarity, with Matt Besler, Ike Opara and Seth Sinovic leading the pack. On the other, all three encountered some sort of adversity in 2016, 2015 or both.
Besler has been the cornerstone of the back line since his MLS defender of the year honor in 2012. After his starting spot was in flux for much of 2016, the club is banking on him serving in that leadership role once again.
Opara started a career-high 16 matches last season after injuries cut short his 2014 and 2015 campaigns. The club hopes for an even greater workload, though Kevin Ellis is lurking as another option. Sinovic started only 16 matches in the last two seasons combined, but he did enough late in the year to convince the coaches he deserves the first crack at the left back spot.
Although coach Peter Vermes determined the roster needed a facelift, he was satisfied with what he had coming back defensively. Thus, the back-line additions were minimal.
Igor Juliao, who spent 2014 in Kansas City, returned on loan after two years in his native Brazil. But he plays right back, a position Sporting KC seems ready to give to Zusi, with incumbent starter Saad Abdul-Salaam still a quality option.
Under the radar
Erik Palmer-Brown remains the youngest signing in club history. He was 16 when he signed his contract in August 2013.
The expectations have been sky high ever since, but Palmer-Brown has appeared in only 10 matches.
After a year in Portugal, his homecoming this winter received rave reviews. It could be the time for a breakout MLS season.
Well, except for this: Palmer-Brown missed the last half of preseason to captain the United States Under-20 men’s national team in the CONCACAF U-20 championship. (He scored the lone goal Monday in a the team’s first win against Mexico in 31 years.)
The U-20s are on the verge of qualifying for the World Cup, which takes place later this year, likely pulling Palmer-Brown out of Kansas City for another extended spell. Time will tell how that affects his ability to crack the lineup in Kansas City.
Seth Sinovic (left back), Matt Besler (left central defender), Ike Opara (right central defender), Graham Zusi (right back), Tim Melia (goalkeeper)