How many players have natural positions? How flexible are those roles? In what circumstances does it make sense to play someone ‘out of position’? These are questions that most soccer fans will find themselves asking sooner or later, particularly if they follow teams coached by habitual tinkerers.
There are few better examples than Jill Ellis, head coach of the US Women’s National Team, who has spent the past few years persistently trying to fit players into new roles. Christen Press has found it difficult to get time as a central striker, where she performs best, but earned plenty of minutes on the wings. Crystal Dunn has gone from fullback to center forward to Number 10 to winger. Allie Long was used as a center back. Kelley O’Hara deployed as a fullback. Becky Sauerbrunn as a holding midfielder. Lindsey Horan as a 6, an 8, a 9. And so forth.
Over that time, there has been a constant barrage of criticism, much of it fair. It has often seemed like her primary motivation has been to pack the lineup with your ‘best’ players, rather than a desire to construct an XI with balance and mutually-supportive strengths. And you can understand the urge. Soccer is a game of skill, and the very best players will always be the most skillful ones. To some extent, you want to get as many of those players on the pitch as possible. But soccer is also a game of strength, athleticism, aggression, and insight. Not every player can excel at everything. A good team needs players who will work together to lift each other up. And that means that sometimes a specialist is more valuable than a superstar.
So there is good reason to approach every attempt to shift a player into a new position with a healthy dose of skepticism.
From center mid to center back
Consider two players that have recently transitioned from the central midfield to center back. In 2015, Yael Averbuch made the shift for FC Kansas City, a move inspired largely by roster shortages related to the World Cup. But it wasn’t purely an act of desperation. Averbuch is a smart player, tall, and physical. There was some reason to think that she’d be able to handle the demands of the position. And there was also some hope that the qualities which made her a standout midfielder wouldn’t be wasted in the role. And that’s more or less what we’ve seen. There was a learning curve, but the move has to be considered a success.
Then there’s the case of Allie Long, a stalwart in the Portland midfield over the years, who was shifted to the backline by Ellis last fall in her experiments with a back three. Superficially, the two cases are somewhat similar. Long has also had success in a holding midfield role, is good in the air, and Ellis believed that her strength in distribution would make her ideal for the ‘libero’ role. However, it quickly became apparent that Long was quite limited defensively, not just in physical ability but also in her positioning and vision, and wasn’t really able to serve as the ‘quarterback’ that Ellis had hoped she might be. Moreover, it also became clear that Ellis’s entire vision for the back three was undercooked (to put it gently), with no real sense of how this formation would solve any of the team’s actual problems. Ultimately, the Ellis back three experiment seems to have been the ne plus ultra of her efforts to jam as many ‘skill’ players onto the pitch as possible, rather than reflecting a sustained effort to organize a balanced team.
So these are two cases, with some similarities, but very different results. And that’s partly just the nature of experiments. Some work, some don’t. Look around the NWSL and you’ll see plenty more examples. Kristen Edmonds has done well after being shifted to fullback, while players like Midge Purce, Jamia Fields, and Rachel Daly have been far less successful there. Amber Brooks has been a solid center back. Christina Gibbons has looked excellent after moving into the central midfield. And so forth.
Some moves seem doomed right from the start. And some are so obvious that you wonder why the shift didn’t happen years ago. But quite often you just need to play it out and see. But even in those cases, it’s not like this is completely random. Some moves are more likely to work than others, and there are some principles that help explain the differences.
First: positions are real, and they require different strengths. To some extent, this is so obvious that it hardly bears saying. Defenders need to be better at defending. They don’t need to be as good on the ball. Pace is good everywhere, but it’s less critical in the central defense and more important on the wings. Skill at possession in tight quarters is good everywhere, but far more important in the central midfield and in the attack. No matter how good a player is, if you’re asking them to work a shift that requires skills they don’t have, they’re going to struggle. That’s not rocket science.
However, the second principle goes the other direction: positions are a lot more flexible than we sometimes think. Pace is critical for fullbacks, except when it isn’t. The modern attacking fullback is all about running, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re willing to restructure your offense, you can get away with four lumbering center backs on your backline. A target forward should be good in the air, but not every forward is a target forward. You can succeed with a lone striker who is five-foot-nothing if you emphasize possession and silky through-balls and deemphasize long balls and crosses into the box. So long as you have a specific objective in mind—and aren’t just trying to jam a square peg into a round hole—using a ‘non-traditional’ player in a role can be quite successful.
Just as one example: there are few things more obvious than the idea that left-footed players should play on the left. But just look at how successful many teams have been in recent years with inverted wingers. All it takes is a slight shift in expectations for the job, and you can extract a great deal of value.
Third, communication is crucial. Most players have a ton of soccer IQ. It’s very hard to succeed in any position at the top levels without it. And given time, they’ll probably pick up the basic skills for a new position. But it won’t be seamless. You see this all the time with players who have grown up in ‘skill’ positions, who are used to taking risks and like to look for the next pass, and then get shifted back into defensive roles. They often get caught in possession when they could have simply cleared the ball into the stands; they attempt risky tackles without cover; they make dangerous passes across the face of goal. Coaching can’t fix those problems immediately—old instincts die hard, after all—but good communication about responsibilities will certainly help manage the danger.
Fourth, and finally, soccer isn’t just about skill … but skill is really important. And the same goes for athleticism. As I noted above, the impulse to simply jam as many skillful players onto the pitch is a bad one, and when that is your overriding impulse, you’re going to get unbalanced and unworkable teams. That said, while every position does have its own unique demands and requirements, there are still some universals. Pace plays anywhere. Skill on the ball plays anywhere. Field vision plays anywhere. And the simple reality is that the best players in the game play in the skill positions. After all, virtually everyone who makes it to the professional level used to be a forward. Players tend to shift down the defensive spectrum as they advance through the ranks. When the pond gets bigger and the number of roles decline, only the very best stay in the attacking spots. Those forward positions are the ones where individual skill matters most, while defense is more of a team endeavor and therefore depends less heavily on the singular talents of one superstar.
There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to the rule. And none of this is meant to minimize the specific demands of other positions. And not every player can manage the transition. Some of the best attackers in the world would be mediocre defenders. But as a general practice, you’re likely to find more success moving a player down the defensive spectrum than the other way around.
Sofia Huerta: fullback?
All of which brings me to the recent news out of the USWNT camp: that Ellis has been experimenting with Sofia Huerta in a fullback role.
Sofia Huerta: I’ve only ever played forward.
Jill Ellis: It’s not that hard, Sofia. Tell her, Tony.
Tony Gustavsson: It’s incredibly hard. https://t.co/nlZNO61ife
— Charles Olney (@olneyce) August 3, 2017
This announcement provoked the usual consternation and outrage (including some from yours truly). And on its face, it does feel a little absurd. Huerta has found a lot of success as an attacker for Chicago but has shown little evidence of any special defensive strengths. Is the US so short on actual right backs that they’re going to try to forcibly convert a forward?
But there really is a coherent logic to the idea. The simple fact is that the US is stacked up top. Huerta is an excellent player, and almost any nation in the world would be desperate to have her. But she might well be a dozen slots deep in the depth chart for the US. It’s certainly not impossible to imagine her playing herself onto the team in that role, but it’s probably not the most likely scenario.
Meanwhile, when it comes to right back, the US provisions are far more limited. If the World Cup started this fall, Kelley O’Hara would probably be the first choice starter. But, of course, O’Hara herself isn’t really a ‘fullback’ by nature. Taylor Smith showed nicely in the Tournament of Nations, but still has a lot to prove, while Ali Krieger still has plenty in the tank but doesn’t seem to figure prominently in Ellis’s future plans. After that, there are a few names that pop up: Erica Skroski, Arin Gilliland, etc. All of whom are good players, and certainly wouldn’t be a disaster in the role. But these are not the sort of world-beaters that the US can deploy at most other positions.
The Gilliland comparison is particularly useful here since she and Huerta share the same club team. And why would you call in a Chicago forward rather than calling in the actual Chicago right back? But this gets back to the fourth principle listed above. Chicago uses Huerta as an attacker because they need her there. But the USWNT, stocked with players like Mallory Pugh, Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and the like, doesn’t need Huerta anywhere.
Now, it’s quite possible that Huerta won’t translate well to a defensive role. And it’s also possible that we’ll never hear anything about this particular move again. But that wouldn’t prove it was a terrible idea per se. The US doesn’t lose much by testing out the waters, and if Huerta did take to the role well, there’s some real room for gain.
With all that in mind, I actually suggested precisely this move on an episode of the 123rd Minute podcast back in June. I didn’t specifically name Huerta (I was actually thinking of Shea Groom at the time), but the concept is the same.
Square pegs don’t fit well into round holes, it’s true. But soccer players aren’t pegs. They are flexible, adaptable human beings. And we simply have too many examples of players shifting into new (occasionally unconventional) roles and flourishing to reject this sort of thing out of hand. In the end, these sorts of moves need to be assessed based on individual ability and contextual need, not prejudged based on a fixed view of the right way to build a team.