Sal Zizzo may eventually reflect on his time with the New York Red Bulls as one of the more peculiar periods of his career. He joined RBNY in 2015, weathered the storm the club brought on itself before that season even started, settled in to a new team playing an extreme and complex version of the pressing game favored by his former club (Sporting Kansas City), and was asked to learn a new position - right back.
As he admitted at RBNY's Media Day, he'd never played the position before, but Zizzo did as he was asked and was the starting right back when the Red Bulls clinched the 2015 Supporters' Shield. And if he thought that was a temporary arrangement necessitated by Chris Duvall's injury problems: he was still played principally as a right back in 2016. And he has now outlasted Duvall (snapped up in the last Expansion Draft) and finds himself in the surely-unexpected position of being RBNY's senior, starting RB.
Further surprise: Zizzo has enjoyed the greatest success of his career in his new position. Last year, he accumulated the most single-season starts (20) and minutes (1920) in MLS since he landed in the league in 2010. Despite arriving in the league after a three-season stint with Hannover 96 that included a handful of Bundesliga appearances, Zizzo never really settled into a role as a tried-and-true starter in MLS. He got close to it in Portland and Kansas City, but his on-field time with the Timbers declined steadily over three seasons and he only had a single season with KC. His first-ever MLS playoff appearances, and first ever significant trophy (the 2015 Shield) have come with RBNY.
At RBNY Media Day, Zizzo said told OaM's Jason Puckett, "I'd say I'm a right back - pretty much the rest of the way." And one is inclined to agree when considering the context that he has found his most settled role with a team in MLS at the position, and that team has been better than most in the league with Zizzo playing regularly at right back.
In the first two games of 2017, Zizzo hasn't just been playing for a good team - a team that has not been at its best but has won both its opening matches of the regular season - he has also been one of its better players. Against Colorado, he delivered the telling cross that drew the match-winning own goal.
His attributes as an attacking player are well known, and it is in the attacking third that Zizzo has caught the eye for RBNY in 2017.
The other curious aspect of his tenure at the Red Bulls is that, despite his consistent presence on a mostly winning team, he doesn't seem to have won over fans. RBNY's tactical plan exposes space behind the full backs and that is often the cause of goals surrendered to opponents breaking into the wide-open flanks of the defense.
Zizzo's perceived flaws as a right back aren't merely an optical illusion created by a vulnerability in RBNY's tactics (though that has a lot to do with it). He himself has admitted as much, telling Jason Puckett, "obviously, huge growing pains the first couple years."
The "first couple years" were the only years of Zizzo's time at right back when he made that comment (this is the start of his third season with the Red Bulls), so he was effectively describing his entire career at RBNY as a massive, difficult learning process. Although constant criticism of his performances seems harsh (and bears comparison with another stalwart but oft-derided full back for the team, Roy Miller), it would appear Zizzo's own assessment of his work wasn't too far away from that of many fans.
And yet, he's looked solid over the first two MLS games of 2017. He's still often being asked to push forward and that still leaves a lot of space for opponents to attack, but even before the team started winning this year - in its desultory performances against Vancouver Whitecaps in CONCACAF Champions League - he seemed a livelier presence than many on the field.
Speaking to reporters after mid-week training prior to RBNY's trip to play Seattle Sounders on March 19, Zizzo sounded much like a man comfortable with his role and his team's overall tactical plan:
I think a little bit with our new system that we're playing, it helps us stay connected as a team and more compact. So we're giving less away, we're less spread out, we're not running out late to something with other players then being late and kind of creating that domino effect. I think we're doing a very good job of staying compact and holding a high line - I think we've really improved on that this year. We've put an emphasis on not letting goals in and it's been good the first two league games.
Maybe he is, finally, comfortable in a position - and most players struggle to find consistency until or unless they are comfortable with their role on the team and are getting regular opportunity to play.
But he also made clear he is not too comfortable:
Every day you strive to get better and improve, and it's an opportunity to get better and improve. We have a lot of competition: [Michael Murillo], Connor [Lade], Justin [Bilyeu], Kemar [Lawrence] - our outside backs, we've got pretty good depth there. You know, every day I just gotta come out and train. I'm not really thinking about that too much, just trying to focus on taking care of business week in and week out. And we've done well to get two results so far.
The "that" he is not really thinking about too much is the competition for a start at his position - particularly that provided by the fact Connor Lade is (still - the team has been saying he's almost ready to play since the end of January) expected to be fully fit again soon, and the arrival in the squad of Panama national-teamer Michael Murillo.
In his post-training comments, RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch provided an update on Murillo that suggested the pressure on Zizzo's place in the starting lineup is building quickly:
Especially at the outside back position we do things very differently than most places, so we're trying to get him [Murillo] up to speed tactically and then what the rhythm of the game is. He needs an opportunity here at some point - so he's done well in training and we're just kind of trying to size up how to help him succeed and how to put him in position to succeed.
So it's a talking point for this weekend, and then we'll see how to find ways to integrate him. But I think so far he likes being here, he's put a lot into it - so we gotta give him a shot here at some point.
"It's a talking point for this weekend." Huh. Well, it wasn't until you said it was, Jesse.
Zizzo had seemed to be playing some of his best soccer as a Red Bull in recent weeks, and one would have thought that was keeping his position safe for now. But if Jesse Marsch insists, sure: it's a talking point.
Marsch's enthusiasm was clearly tempered in those comments, and he didn't give the impression he was quite ready to throw Murillo a start - but like the man said, it's a talking point: it's being thought about; Murillo is gently forcing himself closer to time on the field with his performances in training ,it would seem.
And Marsch's description of Zizzo's work in the starting role was positive but hardly gushing:
Sal's steady, he knows what we're about, he fits within the way we play, we know we can count on him - so, I think so far it's been good and we'll continue to find a way to keep him going as well. And Connor gets back soon and all of a sudden the options in the back line will start to grow - which is good.
Zizzo may finally look comfortable in his role on the team, but it doesn't seem he has the luxury of getting comfortable. His head coach is already talking up a three-way fight for the start at right back, and one of those three (Connor Lade) doesn't even seem to be fit yet.
There's a fine line between keeping a starter from becoming complacent and simply not being entirely sold on the player's long-term hold on the job. Jesse Marsch seems to have edged toward the latter position with his latest comments on his right back options.
For as long as Chris Duvall was on the roster, Zizzo always seemed to be the team's second-best right back (third-best if one considers the stint Connor Lade had as the starter in the position), even on occasions when he clearly was Marsch's preferred choice. Now Duvall has gone and Zizzo has the start in part because there was no other proven, fit option when the season started. But he also has it because he has earned it. Still, he turns 30 at the beginning of April. Lade is 28; Murillo is 21: RalfBall favors youth and Zizzo is now the veteran younger players will be challenged to displace from the starting lineup.
He's playing as well as he has ever done for RBNY, maybe even better than ever before - but Sal Zizzo will need to keep raising his game to keep hold of his place in the Red Bulls' starting lineup this season.