Fabian Johnson will probably start at the World Cup, but his positioning remains an unanswered question. (Jason Mowry/Icon SMI)
STANFORD, Calif. -- Fabian Johnson is skillful, quick and dynamic and loves contributing to the attack. He’s pretty good at it, too, even though he’s accustomed to playing as an outside back for his German club, TSG Hoffenheim.
Only Landon Donovan and Alejandro Bedoya had more assists for the U.S. national team in 2013 than Johnson’s three, which included the helpers on two game-winning goals in World Cup qualifying and came in only eight matches overall.
No wonder then that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has enjoyed deploying the fleet 26-year-old on the midfield flank, where his speed and technique can create real problems for an opposing defense.
“Right now we see him very, very strong on the left wing in midfield,” Klinsmann said last summer, a few weeks after his squad surged to the top of the Hexagonal standings. Johnson had started the June wins over Panama and Jamaica in left midfield.
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But in December, the U.S. was drawn into the World Cup’s Group of Death, where it will face Germany, Portugal and Ghana -- teams that can attack with ruthless speed and efficiency. As a result, Johnson said Thursday that he’ll likely play in back in Brazil, perhaps answering one of the key questions facing the U.S. as it begins preparing here at Stanford University.
“I’m trying to play in the mid but I think at the World Cup I’m going to play defender,” Johnson said, before adding humbly, “If I’m going to be in the squad.”
He’ll be in the squad, and can probably be considered one of around five or six locks to start. The big question though has been where he'll be deployed, especially because of the domino effect it’ll have on the rest of the team. As enticing a prospect as Johnson marauding through midfield might be, he’s a veteran Bundesliga defender accustomed to battling the sort of attackers the U.S. will face in Brazil. Considering the lack of World Cup experience among Klinsmann’s back line, that seasoning will be all the more crucial.
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Johnson’s versatility is evident side-to-side as well as front-to-back. He actually started more games at right back for Hoffenheim during the 2013-14 Bundesliga campaign. His experience on the left for the U.S. and the glut of right back hopefuls at Stanford, however, suggest the left is a more likely home this summer. But it’s hard not to wonder whether the manager might consider asking Johnson to play on the right at least once, in order to match up against FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo when the U.S. meets Portugal in Manaus. Ronaldo tends to start most of his attacking runs from his left.
“I just want to play. That’s my first goal,” Johnson said when asked about a potential showdown with the Real Madrid star, but he couldn’t contain his smile as he added, “Doesn’t matter against who.” His grin said it all.
At the moment, Johnson represents Klinsmann’s most significant recruiting success. Bayern Munich teenager Julian Green may be a difference-maker down the road, but Johnson will be the dual-national relied upon to make a difference in Brazil. He was born in Munich to an American father and German mother and represented his native country at every age group from U-17 through U-21. He started in midfield alongside Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira for the German U-21 team that won the 2009 European title with a 4-0 demolition of England.
But Klinsmann pursued Johnson and then landed him in Sept. 2011. Johnson always had affection for the U.S. thanks to his father (who played professional basketball for Bayern Munich) and had vacationed with this family in New York City and Florida. While in the youth system at 1860 Munich, he once spoke to American international Gregg Berhalter, a former 1860 player (and now Columbus Crew head coach), about the possibility of representing the U.S. Once Johnson met his new teammates and made his debut in a Nov. 2011 match against France, he was sure he’d made the right decision.
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“I just had a great feeling to be with this group,” Johnson said Thursday. Soft-spoken and easy-going, Johnson appreciated the fact that the U.S. locker room was a welcoming, supportive environment. It wasn’t always about business and the bottom line. He’s become fond of American culture as well and the way U.S. fans support their national team.
“I just have a good feeling with this team, good wins with this team, a good experience, and I think I made the right choice,” he said.
But is he ready to go all the way and get a stars and stripes tattoo like fellow German-Americans Terrence Boyd and Jermaine Jones?
“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe next week.”