Sal Zizzo landed with the New York Red Bulls in rare circumstances for the current squad: an absolute steal of a deal that Ali Curtis didn't engineer. As far as we know, anyway. Zizzo was the 18th pick of the 2014 Expansion Draft (about two weeks before Curtis was appointed the Red Bulls' sporting director), nabbed by New York City FC and promptly flipped out to RBNY in exchange for a one-year loan of Ryan Meara. After the 2015 season, the Red Bulls got Meara back, still had Zizzo, and had won the Supporters' Shield for the second time in three years. NYCFC missed the playoffs; Meara made one MLS appearance in light blue.
By the time the Shield was won in Chicago in October, Zizzo was RBNY's starting right back. It seemed a surprising transition for a player who had started the season competing for one of the spots in the team's attacking front four - but it was no accident. Head coach Jesse Marsch persisted with Zizzo as a right back in 2016, and rewarded the player's progress with 20 regular-season starts (in 2015, he'd had 10).
The recent addition of specialist right back Amir Murillo suggests Marsch does have one eye on reinforcing the position, and Connor Lade will expect to challenge Zizzo for the starting role once he is fully fit. But Marsch is also looking at converting draft pick Ethan Kutler - another attacking player by reputation - to right back. The coach clearly likes an attack-minded player at outside back, and if he can't make defenders more attacking, he'll ask attackers to defend.
But Sal Zizzo can look back at two mostly successful seasons playing for a winning team while transitioning to a new position. He'll turn 30 in April, and though he has traded off his versatility for much of his career, he sees the latest role as the one he will stick with:
I can still obviously play a lot of different positions: I came in a couple of times last year in the attack when we had some injuries, but ultimately I'd say I'm a right back - pretty much the rest of the way, I would say.
Converting to the position was not painless, as Zizzo himself acknowledges during the Red Bulls' 2017 Media Day. But the conversion, at least in terms of any uncertainty he may have felt about it, is also complete:
I think it's the next stage of my career, where as I get older I can learn a new trade. And I feel very comfortable back there. Obviously, huge growing pains the first couple years: you know, you play the position and you never played there before. I'm starting to really kind of transition the mindset to being a defender and feel really comfortable.
The Red Bulls' tactical system challenges full backs to cover a lot of ground, and the players tasked with playing the position are the most commonly derided by fans when a game is going against RBNY. Asked to push forward aggressively, the Red Bulls' full backs can hardly help but leave space behind them - and that space is an obvious outlet for an opponent to chase into on the counter-attack. But the basic principle of the RBNY system is to outscore the opposition, and attacking full backs are important to that principle.
The Red Bulls might torture their full backs more than most teams, but the core game-plan is perhaps well-suited to a player with Zizzo's instincts:
It's a lot more taxing than the way right back or outside back is played on most other teams. You know, there's a lot to deal with being on this type of team - with and without the ball. And as you've seen, we like to get our outside backs involved in the attack a lot: so that part of my game feels natural, and it's just picking and choosing when to do that.
Off the pitch, we maybe know a little more about Zizzo than most players on the squad because he and his wife, Destiny Moniz, were part of TLC's Rattled, a reality TV show that followed couples in their first year as parents around for a while.
The show aired in 2016, but was mostly filmed during Zizzo's first year at RBNY - so it has been with him while he has been learning a new game on the field. He's happy at right back, but was he happy enough on TV to think about another reality show stint? " Yeah - i would do it again. It wasn't too overbearing on our personal life or anything. They filmed maybe three times a month for maybe six months," he said.
Reality TV comes with a certain reputation for manufacturing drama: "Reality TV is reality TV - they try and exaggerate certain situations, for sure," Zizzo recalled with a smile. "It was a fun little thing to do and my wife really enjoys doing stuff like that."
And though he would do it again, Zizzo doesn't necessarily think of himself or his teammates as natural candidates for the genre: "The way I've seen that reality TV works is you've got to have the drama and you've got to really have a crazy life or try and live a crazy life in the moment - and we kind of...we're pretty normal. I don't know - if they did a reality show on the entire team, I think that would be fun to watch. I don't know anybody personally would be good."
Collectively, the club might be capable of staging a wild off-season, but take it from someone who knows: individually, the New York Red Bulls aren't nearly wild enough for reality TV.