Ahead of the U.S.’s friendly with Costa Rica on Tuesday, Jurgen Klinsmann put the focus on Fabian Johnson, calling him out for essentially faking an injury against Mexico. Whether wrong or right, Klinsmann commenting publicly about it was a mistake.
HARRISON, N.J. — The last time Jurgen Klinsmann threw a U.S. player under the bus, it was Alejandro Bedoya. Last month, after putting Bedoya in a defensive midfield role he had never played before—and against Brazil, no less—Klinsmann took him off before halftime and said on ESPN: “Ale had a bit of a problem getting into his rhythm.”
Even though making a non-injury sub before halftime is the equivalent of a coach admitting a mistake, there was no raised hand from Klinsmann. No “my bad.” He essentially hung Bedoya out to dry.
The latest U.S. player to get tossed under the bus by Klinsmann on Monday was Fabian Johnson, the right back (with the U.S., at least) who’s the only U.S. player competing in the UEFA Champions League group stage (as a left midfielder for Borussia Mönchengladbach).
Johnson asked to come out of the U.S.’s 3–2 loss to Mexico on Saturday in the 111th minute, when the game was still tied at 2–2. He was replaced by Brad Evans with the U.S.’s third and final substitution.
“I had a very severe word with Fabian Johnson, and I sent him home today,” said Klinsmann ahead of Tuesday’s less-than-tantalizing friendly against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena. “He said he couldn’t go anymore and I reacted to it and obviously made the substitution. But he just feared to get possibly an injury, but he was not injured in that moment. He got all stiffened up. It’s a muscle issue. That’s normal. In a situation like that, little things often make a difference.”
“You have to move on,” Klinsmann continued later. “So [Johnson] is going home after we had a talk. And he can rethink his approach toward his team.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. For starters, Johnson wasn’t around to defend himself, nor was the U.S. team doctor made available to give his opinion on whether Johnson should have come off or not. What we do know is this: Johnson missed five weeks of club action with a torn right calf muscle before returning on Sept. 23 and playing in four games for Gladbach. (He came off before the 70th minute in two of them.) He then played 111 minutes for the U.S. on Saturday.
A U.S. Soccer spokesperson said Johnson’s muscle tightness on Saturday was not in the same calf muscle that had been injured before.
Yet Klinsmann’s public comments on Monday were revealing in multiple ways:
• He didn’t have to torch Johnson publicly but did so anyway. Klinsmann could have kept the issue in-house but for some reason decided to air it to the wider world.
• For some reason, Klinsmann used the context that Johnson’s removal prevented him from executing his master plan and bringing in goalkeeper Nick Rimando for the penalty-kick shootout. But penalties weren’t necessary anyway in the end, and the whole “bringing on a new GK for penalties” is getting played out as it is. Brad Guzan would have been fine in goal if penalties had been required.
• The last two players Klinsmann has thrown under the bus, Johnson and Bedoya, are two of the last U.S. field players who have stayed in Europe and tried to reach the highest level on the global club pyramid. In that sense, you’d think they’d be poster children for what Klinsmann wants from U.S. players.
• By bringing up Johnson’s dismissal publicly, Klinsmann switched the conversation away from the public’s questioning of whether he should continue as the U.S. coach and put it on what he considers the fault of a player. And there’s no way that can’t come off as self-serving.
Bottom line: If Johnson was asking to come off when he shouldn’t have been—and we don’t know for certain that was the case—then that’s a problem. An internal team problem. But there’s no way that Klinsmann should have gone public with it.