BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, November 30, 2011
As the US national team concluded its 2011 schedule with a 3-2 win over Slovenia, one of the most impressive new faces on the team is Hoffenheim midfielder Fabian Johnson.
Johnson, 23, earned his first two international caps in the November friendlies. After a late substitute appearance against France, he earned the start for the Slovenia game.
Against Slovenia, Johnson was extremely effective playing on the outside of the midfield. In the first half he nearly had an assist but Jozy Altidore was unable to convert Johnson's pass from close range. Shortly after, Johnson received a pass from Timothy Chandler and drew a penalty on a quick turn in the box. This time, Altidore was able to find the back of the net as he converted the penalty.
Prior to the Slovenia game, the US team had struggled mightily on offense having scored just two goals in the first six games of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as head coach. Johnson's presence in the game brought new life to the struggling offense and he was personally satisfied with his performance.
"It was a really great time," Johnson told YA from Germany. "I was very happy with the win over Slovenia. It was exciting for me. I think I played pretty well."
Johnson's first time with the US national team came in September when he was invited by Klinsmann to train ahead of the friendlies against Costa Rica and Belgium.
Johnson was unable to play because his switch from FIFA was not completed but he felt the experience just in training was productive in that he got him adjusted to the team and Jurgen Klinsmann's style quickly.
"The first time I got to know them was in LA," Johnson explained. "I was there for a week and I got to know the staff and the team. I think the whole team is great. It's been very easy to adjust. For Jurgen, I think every coach has his own style. The style is different. Jurgen Klinsmann wants the [US involved] more technically and more physically."
Prior to arriving at the US camp in Los Angeles, Johnson was not familiar with most of his new American teammates but after two camps he walked away particularly impressed with the team's veteran core.
"It was great to play with guys like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard," Johnson pointed out. "When I saw Tim Howard, I thought he had a great performance against Costa Rica and then against France. He's just a great player."
Throughout his career Johnson has earned a reputation as a versatile player that can play all across the midfield. For the US team, Johnson was playing wide left in the midfield but Hoffenheim has also used him centrally in an attacking position.
Johnson is unsure of where he will continue to play for the US moving forward but he is equally comfortable anywhere in the midfield.
"In the last game against Slovenia I played in the midfield," Johnson said of his positions. "I think that's where he will continue to play me but I don't know if it will be in the center or outside. I like both the outside and center very much. I like it when I am on the outside and I can move in. I also like moving from the inside out."
Johnson has also played occasionally in the backline at both fullback positions. While this is a possibility for the US team particularly at the left back, Johnson insists that it is not his best position.
"I prefer to play in the midfield," Johnson said bluntly. "But we haven't talked about playing in the back yet. We will see in the future."
One of the biggest storylines for the US national team during 2011 has been the increased presence of German-born American players. On the last US roster, Johnson was one of five players born in Germany who all share a similar background of having their citizenship derive from an American father who was stationed in Germany while serving in the US military.
Johnson was born in Munich and his father is from Michigan. Johnson speaks fluent English despite never having lived in the United States. He has, however, visited the US several times on vacation.
Despite the increased German presence on the US team, Johnson is adamant that it is not important to him and that he is happy to be on an American team regardless of where the players are born.
"It makes no difference," Johnson insists. "I think the whole team is great. Whether you're from Germany or not, it's not really important."
As a youth player, Johnson was a top prospect in Germany and he featured for their youth national teams. In 2009, he was part of a German U-21 team that won the European Championship. Since then, however, he was unable to ever get a call for the powerful German senior national team.
In August, Johnson was told by Hoffenheim head coach Holger Stanislawski that Jurgen Klinsmann was going to call him about playing for the United States. Since he had previously played for Germany's U21 team, he would need to file a one-time switch with FIFA to play for the United States. Doing so would bind him permanently to the US program.
When Klinsmann called, Johnson accepted immediately and the decision to file the switch was not a difficult one to make.
"It wasn't really tough," Johnson said of the decision to play for the United States. "It was a great chance for me. I talked with my family about it and they agreed. It wasn't a hard decision."
The next time Johnson will likely have a chance to play for the US again won't be until the February international window.
Until then, he will focus primarily on continuing to succeed at Hoffenheim whom he signed for in June after parting ways with Wolfsburg. Hoffenheim currently sits in ninth place in the Bundesliga with 18 points through 14 games.
The club only has two points in their previous four games but Johnson believes the team's goal right now is to move into the top six and contend for Europe.
"In the beginning of the year we were doing well and we won most of our games," Johnson said of Hoffenheim's current season. "Now it's getting a little more complicated. Recently we've been ahead but have given away the lead in the last few minutes. We have to work on that a little bit. But I think we have the ability to qualify for European competition. We have to improve to get there. We have a lot of quality and talent."
Johnson and Hoffenheim return to action this Friday when they visit sixth place Bayer Leverkusen.