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BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Fabian Johnson is one of the best U.S national team players, but where should he play on the field?

The versatile Johnson has floated between left back and left midfield ever since he started playing for the United States in 2011. The bonus for U.S team is that he has excelled in both positions but it is becoming clearer that the midfield is where he is most valuable to the U.S team.

It is no secret that the U.S team has always struggled at the left back before Johnson so why move him away from that position?

Here's the answer: he is very good defensively as a midfielder and works well with the left backs even when he is further up the field.

Here's the evidence. Aside from his first cap against France when he came on late in the game, Johnson has played left midfield for the U.S team five times

The games

Slovenia, 2011: Johnson played 61 minutes at left midfield and was subbed out with the U.S team leading 3-1. When he was in the midfield, Timothy Chandler was at left back. This was the first great offensive performance from the U.S team under Jurgen Kinsmann.

Germany, 2013: Johnson played the first half at left midfield before leaving at the half with a strained hamstring. When he left the game the U.S was leading 2-0. DaMarcus Beasley played 56 minutes at left back and Edgar Castillo played 34 minutes at left back. The final score was 4-3 in favor of the Americans but the U.S team dominated the first half with Johnson in the midfield. It was far from the best German team but it was still a quality opponent.

Jamaica, 2013: Johnson started at left midfield before being subbed out in the 76th minute. When he left the game, the U.S was ahead 1-0. It would later win 2-1 for its first ever win against Jamaica on the road.

Panama, 2013: Johnson started and played 87 minutes at left midfield and left with the score 2-0 which is how it ended. DaMarcus Beasley started and played the full 90 at left back.

Bosnia, 2013: Johnson started the game at left back where he played the first half. The U.S team was trailing 2-0 at the half and then Johnson was moved to the midfield. Edgar Castillo was then placed into the left back position. The U.S team scored four goals in the second half and conceded once for a 4-3 victory.

The numbers for Fabian Johnson in the midfield

One of the common concerns about moving Johnson into the midfield is that Edgar Castillo and DaMarcus Beasley are liabilities defensively as left backs and cannot shoulder the burden.

So far, those numbers simply do not add up.

In those five games listed above, Johnson has played 314 minutes in the midfield and the U.S team has conceded just two goals. One was when Timothy Chandler was playing left back, the other was when Edgar Castillo was a left back. The goal the U.S team conceded with Castillo at left back was the fault of the players on the right side. Bobby Wood failed to close down on a cross and central defender John Brooks was beaten in the air.

The only goal that was the fault of the left side of the field when Johnson was in the midfield was against Slovenia when Chandler failed to hold his line in an offsides trap. Considering Chandler isn't in the picture anymore at left back, this isn't an issue of concern.

So the team plays well defensively with Johnson in the midfield as only one goal has come down the left side during that time. The goals only tells part of the story since opponents haven't even been able to create many opportunities down the left side. When looking at the media's ratings of U.S games, Castillo and Beasley have had their best performances for the U.S when Johnson has been in front of them.

More importantly, in those 314 minutes with Johnson in an attacking position, the U.S team has scored and incredible 12 goals for a ridiculous ratio of one goal every 26 minutes. It is a safe bet those offensive productivity numbers won't hold at that rate if Johnson continues to play in the midfield but it does suggest the team clicks with Johnson's presence in the midfield.

These games have not been against weak competition either. Two of the games were against European teams on the road. Another was against a German team that lacked most of its stars but still consisted of above-average Bundesliga players. The win over Jamaica on the road was at a venue the U.S team has never won before.

Bottom line, Johnson belongs in the midfield. His presence in an attacking role works. He adds more to the attack without creating any noticeable void at left back.
away goals
Tuesday August 27, 2013 12:54 pm
Analysis that only looks at goals is incomplete. Goals allowed can be dramatically misleading in evaluating the performance of a defender.

Think of the Germany game, Beasley was pantsed twice and manhandled on another occasion giving the Germans three sitters that they somehow failed to convert.

Chances allowed would be a better metric for judging Beasley vs Fabian.
Friday August 23, 2013 3:26 pm
I tend to agree with Fraser31 on this one. Selections of the fullbacks and the wings are interdependent. Because all of our left fullbacks are offense-oriented, I like the idea of a LW who works hard and is disciplined defensively.
Wednesday August 21, 2013 9:19 am
How did the US do with him at LB?
Wednesday August 21, 2013 8:40 am
You can't just throw in a stat to say that Beasley and Castillo are good defensively, especially if it's over the course of 314 minutes. Germany didn't show up that first half. Slovenia isn't a exactly a powerhouse. Bosnia put in two against us.

Anyone can tell by simply watching either of those two that in competitive matches against non-CONCACAF teams they will absolutely get burned. And Beasley will be even slower (and pace is really his only strong suit).
Tuesday August 20, 2013 7:50 pm
Not to duck the question or anything, but isn't the answer to the question, is the team better off with Fabian at LB or LM, really a situational one? Personally, I think the team is marginally better with him at LM and someone like Beasley at LB, but the real question(s) is, how effectively can the other team exploit the incremental weakness of a looser LB - and how motivated will they be to do so? If it's a team that bunkers, then move him up the field; if we're behind, then move him up the field; but if it's a tense game where the other guys can & will punch hard down the right side of the field, it's probably better to keep him back for that. Anyway, that's my $.02...
Tuesday August 20, 2013 5:31 pm
Donovan is better than Zusi at RM Dempsey has to play behind. The striker(s), and Johnson is a better LM than anyone in the pool. Barring a spectacular performance this season from Shea, I don't see Donovan moving over to left mid. We just don't have the need for it in my opinion. Fabian is as good fensively as a left mid as he is as a left back in my opinion, and frankly I don't think he is the best LB we have. Sure As an attacking threat he is, but defensively I feel there's a little bit to be desired. Given that he hustles defensively at LM, I'm okay giving someone else the nod at LB. it's the same situation for our RBs. We don't have a great RB, but we've managed defensively because of the hustle of our RM.
Tuesday August 20, 2013 4:45 pm
Not only has the team done well when he's in the midfield, but he has been in the middle of a ton of good attacking play and assisted on at least three gorgeous Altidore goals.
Tuesday August 20, 2013 3:37 pm
Johnson belongs on the bench next to the water boy let's stop it
he's not a good player n please someone Twitter him n tell him we don't want him to play for USA national he's not a true American thank you
Tuesday August 20, 2013 3:28 pm
Just wanted to point out the Bosnia game was 4-3 for the US not 4-2. Bosnia scored late in the second half. I still agree that Johnson has looked really good at LM.
Tuesday August 20, 2013 3:19 pm
We have valuable options for the LM position: Donovan, Dempsey, EJ - but not for left defender.
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