MLS' era of attacking fullbacks has changed cap management, development

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

They're no longer the weak spot in the XI. Fullbacks have become transformative presences in Major League Soccer.

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Seattle Sounders left back Joevin Jones sprinted up the left side of the field last month, his run starting 15 yards behind teammate Nicolas Lodeiro in a primetime game against the New York Red Bulls.

Lodeiro spotted the overlap and fed Jones, and by the time the Trinidadian defender got on the ball, his first touch saved it from crossing the end line. Jones looked over his left shoulder, baiting New York Red Bulls defender Sal Zizzo into defending a back pass, then megged the defender and found Lodeiro in the box. The Uruguayan crossed to Jordan Morris for what proved to be the game-winning goal.

It was a beautiful team build-up and goal, but one that would not have been possible if not for the skillset of Jones, a rangy left back with the pace and skill to open up a team whenever he ventures forward. The defender has been arguably one of the most important players for the defending MLS Cup champion, and he is a prime example of the game-breaking effect of a modern, attacking fullback.

At less than $80,000 a year in salary, Jones also represents one of the league’s very best budget deals, especially at a position that is quickly developing a higher value on the market.

In today’s game, fullback isn’t where you throw the last man picked at a kickaround. It’s a position that has the utmost importance in many of today’s modern systems. Fullbacks are now often thought of as a vital part of a team’s attacking play.

In MLS, the position is also changing the way teams think about roster building.

Evolution of the fullback

The tactics of soccer is cyclical. Ideas and reforms are introduced, copycatted, improved upon and then recycled through the game over time.

A wider-lens view of soccer history gives a basic outline of the tactical evolution, especially in regards to formations. The W-M formation (3-2-2-3) gave way to the 4-2-4, which was eventually replaced by the 4-4-2, which has led to a world of 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-3 and so on and so forth. The tactical battle often centers around creating imbalances on the attacking end while maintaining shape defensively. In each iteration, the skillset of the back line is central to the system, and the role of fullbacks is usually critical.

In the classic 4-4-2, for which English soccer was known for several decades, fullbacks were defenders first; bigger, bruising players that rarely ventured forward. Those ideas were challenged with Brazil’s play in the 1958 World Cup, which introduced a less rigid style of play and brought fullbacks into play as a potential extra man in the final third. That gave way to total football, perfected by the Dutch in the 1970s. Johan Cruyff further revolutionized the game as Barcelona manager in the late 1980s and 1990s, and some argue Pep Guardiola has continued that evolution.

We use fullbacks as another attacker, basically, and we think it’s important they are constantly involved in the attack. And we do that to unbalance the opponent ...

- Gregg Berhalter

In the modern era of soccer, the tactics have put a premium on attacking-minded fullbacks that can bomb forward and cause overloads. It’s a role that has been perfected by players like Real Madrid’s Marcelo, Juventus’ Dani Alves and Barcelona’s Jordi Alba. Those tactics have, of course, made their way around the world. In MLS, teams like Columbus, Sporting Kansas City, Portland, Seattle and Atlanta, among others, use their fullbacks to varying degrees in the attack.

“If you look back over the years, and you go way back, fullbacks were used more as a surprise,” Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “An attack would be happening and then all of a sudden the fullback is coming out of the blue making a massive overlapping run, the ball gets played and he finishes an attack. Think about Carlos Alberto and the goal at the [1970] World Cup; it is a great example of that. But we use fullbacks as another attacker, basically, and we think it’s important they are constantly involved in the attack. And we do that to unbalance the opponent and really try to pin the opponent back.”

Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said England first confronted the change in fullbacks in the late 1950s and early ’60s when Jimmy Armfield overlapped from the position for Blackpool, creating 2-v-1 overloads. It took years for the English game to adapt on a larger scale, but by the time Heath was an assistant at Sunderland in the early 2000s, he remembers struggling to match-up against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, a team that had Ashley Cole bombing up the left side.

Heath, like Berhalter, prefers a 4-2-3-1 system that ideally utilizes fullbacks in the attack.

“You can actually effect a game now from fullback positions,” Heath said. “You can really affect the opposition’s shape the way you play. Especially if the [winger] ahead of them are good at getting in the right space at the right time. The way the game is evolving, you look at how expansive Columbus has been the last few years, with their fullbacks halfway in your half, and the Revolution do it well, too. It’s difficult to cope with, it really is.”

Less money, more problems

As the tactics of the game have changed, it’s also given MLS general managers another challenge.

In a salary cap world, there is always a give-and-take. For a long time in MLS, fullbacks fell victim to that math. It simply didn’t make sense for outside backs to be on the higher end of the pay scale, not when funds are limited and money needs to be spent on forwards, playmakers and even center backs and defensive midfielders.

With fullbacks playing as important a role in modern soccer as ever, teams that employ certain systems are beginning to put a premium on the talent in those spots.

In 2013, only five fullbacks in the league made more than $225,000: Lee Young-Pyo, Sean Franklin, Heath Pearce, Marvell Wynne and Richard Eckersley. Last season, at least 10 fullbacks hit that mark: Ashley Cole, Andrew Farrell, Chris Wingert, DaMarcus Beasley, Harrison Afful, Graham Zusi, Nick DeLeon, Steven Beitashour, AJ DeLaGarza and Franklin. Perhaps as many as six or seven others, including Justin Morrow, Waylon Francis, Greg Garza and Kemar Lawrence, could hit that mark when 2017 salary numbers are made public.

Before TAM, you probably saw a lot less spending [at fullback]. Now that there is bonus money to build middle of the roster, teams are looking at wide positions …

- Dave Kaspar

A shift has occurred in just four seasons, and it’s done so in lockstep with the fullback’s role in the modern game. With an influx of attacking talent in the league and the increased role of fullbacks in the game, the position simply can’t be devalued in MLS anymore; at least, not by teams that expect to utilize attacking fullbacks.

“We have the [second] highest-paid right back and the third highest-paid left back, and it’s about how you want to play,” Berhalter said. “You don’t necessarily have to spend at that position, but if you want to emphasize fullbacks you need quality. For us, we don’t mind paying at that position because we know it’s a part of our attack.”

D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper said MLS rules have also made it easier for teams to keep up with tactical evolution.

“Certainly with the advent of [Targeted Allocation Money] now and the level of the TAM spend, there is now money to build the middle of your roster,” Kasper said. “Typically before TAM, you probably saw a lot less spending [at fullback]. Now that there is bonus money to build the middle of the roster, teams are looking at wide positions, and some coaches view it as quarterbacks there. The middle is such a tight crowded place to play, and you want the wide guys that can defend, but who can attack and start the attack with passing and movement. It’s a natural evolution for the league with the money now.”

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

As teams in MLS search for modern fullbacks, several have converted midfielders to the position. The two highest-paid fullbacks in the league, Beasley and Zusi, are converted midfielders. Other traditional midfielders, like Brek Shea in Orlando in 2015 and DeLeon in D.C., have been tried in the role. In some ways, it follows a pattern that starts at the youth levels, where players are often switched to fullback later in their development.

A national search

That trend has occurred within the U.S. national team setup, too. Shea, Zusi and Beasley have spent time at fullback on the international level; Beasley played in two World Cups at the position. Fabian Johnson, a midfielder in the Bundesliga, has often played fullback with the U.S. team out of necessity.

To some degree, that is bound to change for the U.S. team.

U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena recently joked that one thing he liked about Jorge Villafana, the new starter at left back, was that the Santos Laguna defender was actually a left back, a nod, perhaps, to his predecessor’s comments that anyone can play left back. 

Under Arena, the search for true fullbacks has expanded, including the likes of Garza, Villafaña and Eric Lichaj. DeAndre Yedlin, who has been a standout for Newcastle this season, is perhaps U.S.’ best attacking fullback option. In a pool that is the deepest it has ever been, fullback is by far the weakest depth chart. The lack of options at the position is a sign, perhaps, at how the fullback has been valued in the U.S. structure. The national team setup is dependent on club teams to develop its talent.

As teams in MLS begin to value the position more, the development of fullbacks will become a higher priority. Cheap talent at the fullback position – including homegrowns like Portland’s Marco Farfan and San Jose’s Nick Lima and players like Philadelphia’s Keegan Rosenberry, Orlando’s Rafael Ramos, Chicago’s Brandon Vincent and Seattle’s Joevin Jones – is now a huge bonus considering the rising prices at the position.

Kasper pointed to the last few years in the draft, with players like Rosenberry, Vincent, Jake Nerwinsky, Chris Odoi-Atsem and Chris Duvall as examples of teams looking to find and develop cheap talent at that spot in addition to spending at higher levels.

“If teams find the right player, you’re certainly going to try to develop rather than spend,” Kasper said.

An incentive to develop should theoretically produce better defenders at younger ages. In the long term, that emphasis on mining fullback talent should eventually filter up to the national team program.

Reaching the international stage is one of the final steps in that cyclical process. And in the not-too-distant future, tactical innovations will surely start that procedure all over again.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.