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SSFC Spotlight: Sean Zawadzki makes USMNT debut

The Columbus Crew defender started against Slovenia.

Slovenia v United States Photo by Elizabeth Kreutz/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team closed out the annual January camp with a 1-0 loss to Slovenia. While friendly results are ultimately meaningless, multiple players received the opportunity to become more familiar with the program, make a senior debut, and, ideally, gain their sea legs at the international level. Sean Zawadzki started on the back line in the match, earning his first cap under Gregg Berhalter. The 23-year-old centre-back had an up-and-down 90 minutes, but inauspicious beginnings are hardly indicative of future success.

Born in the Cleveland suburb of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, Zawadzki played with Team Challenger FC and the Columbus Crew academy (traveling “over 250 miles each day”) before embarking on a highly successful collegiate career at Georgetown University that included two Big East titles and the 2019 College Cup. In his freshman year, he was named to the BIG EAST All-Freshman squad, followed by a Second Team All-BIG EAST campaign as a sophomore while also competing with the Long Island Rough Riders in USL League Two. As a junior, the defender was once again named Second Team All-Conference while also being selected First Team All-Region by the United Soccer Coaches. His senior season culminated with First Team All-BIG EAST honors, BIG EAST All-Tournament Team selection, and the BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year award. His coach praised him for “covering ground and killing opportunities defensively,” skills that would translate to the professional level.

Eschewing an additional fifth season of eligibility, Zawadzki signed a Homegrown player contract with the Crew through 2023 with two option years, cited as someone who “embodies the club’s values” along with being “a proven winner and a talented player.” His first year was spent mostly with Crew 2 in MLS Next Pro, helping lead the reserves to the regular season and playoff titles while adjusting to the “speed of play and physicality” of the professional game. He enjoyed a brief run with the first team over the summer, featuring in five consecutive matches and netting his first goal, a one-time drive from outside of the box, to open proceedings in a 2-1 victory over Trillium Cup rivals Toronto FC.

Zawadzki began 2023 as a back-up option under a new manager (who noted that the midfielder-defender was “too nice”), mainly coming off the bench. However, he eventually picked up starts and made 42 total appearances, adding four goals. During the Crew’s run to the MLS Cup, his role returned to providing substitute minutes. As expected, the club exercised the option on his contract for next season.

An in-season switch from defensive midfielder to centre-back was unexpected. “It was a bit of a shock in the moment,” said Zawadzki. “With the ball, I feel really comfortable. It’s kind of given me more time on the ball, [to] face forward and look at everything in front of me. It’s kind of the defensive side of things where I needed a lot of communication from guys around me to help me… In center midfielder, you don’t always have to step the line and kind of clear the space. I think that’s the biggest [difference] that I’ve seen so far.”

At the international level, Zawadzki competed with the United States in the U-19 and U-20 groups. He earned his first senior call-up during the most recent January camp and went the full 90 minutes in the 1-0 loss to Slovenia. His performance drew mixed reviews, with MLSSoccer.com describing him as “generally composed on the ball,” “overcoming one sloppy giveaway early on,” and being “left out to dry” on the goal while potentially in a position to “have done a bit more to close down” the scorer, Nejc Gradišar.

“I think last year was a decent year for me,” Zawadzi told the Massive Report. “I think I took another step up from where I was the year before. I was lucky enough to be recognized by the coaching staff here to get this opportunity… Coming in here, you kind of get a whole new glimpse of everything, too, with Gregg [Berhalter] and the staff… It’s different for me. It’s kind of learning a whole new system in a way… [My goal is] to continue to be in the outlook of things here in camp, if it’s [the CONCACAF] Gold Cup, whatever it is, whenever the opportunity presents itself to come in and do what I’m capable of, and I think I’m capable of being here.”

A versatile midfielder and defender, Zawadzki is praised as being “incredibly durable” and “an efficient passer” with a “great motor.” Coaches note his abilities on the ball and keen positional sense as well as being strong in the air, although his aerial duels would need to improve in the event of a full-time switch to the back line. As expected from a Crew player, he completes a high number of passes from short and medium distances with a respectable accuracy while also registering several tackles and interceptions per match.

Zawadzki enjoyed two firsts in the new year by earning an invitation to the national team and making his debut. While the match against Slovenia wasn’t the ideal performance, he didn’t look out of place at the international level. The next challenge is keeping a position in the starting lineup for the defending champion Crew and continuing to develop. There are several upcoming competitions for the USMNT, which should provide ample opportunity for several players to remain connected to the program.