Saturday, August 13, 2011 |
Say what you will about the positives Juergen Klinsmann has brought to the USMNT, there are still some things he can't change, like the US player pool...or can he? Although he may not be able to magically produce eleven world class American players, he is in a unique position to cure one of the US's most painful ailments: left back.
Enter Fabian Johnson, the 23 year old German-American left back at Bundesliga club Hoffenheim. Only a couple short years ago, Johnson was playing for the German U-21 team at the UEFA Championship, having just completed another solid season at 1860 Munich, starting 33 matches, scoring two goals and notching seven assists in the process. He then made the big jump to then Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg where his promising career hit a sizable speed bump.
In his first season at Wolfsburg, he played in ten matches, starting only six. The following season, he played in just seven matches, with Wolfsburg's lack of European competition putting the squeeze on his playing time.
At the beginning of this summer, he transferred from Wolfsburg to Hoffenheim for €600k, where general manager Ernst Tanner expects big things, calling Fabian a "very talented and very versatile full-back." And Johnson is already fulfilling those expectations.
On July 31, Johnson came on as a late sub in a cup match against Germania Windeck and scored the match winner in extra time on a calm finish after an excellent run through the Windeck defense. Last week he started and played 89 minutes in Hoffenheim's first Bundesliga match against Hannover and he looks to feature prominently for the foreseeable future.
At a time when Juergen Klinsmann is making many changes to the USMNT, bringing Fabian Johnson into the fold could prove to be one of the best he can make. His status as a German soccer icon might help accelerate the process of Johnson opting for the United States by way of his one-time international allegiance switch rather than waiting for a Germany call-up. If there's one position on the US national team a guy like Johnson could walk into and get a long look at, it'd be left back without a doubt.
Despite Edgar Castillo showing signs of potential down the left flank, he still doesn't appear to be the permanent solution. His loans in the past few years have been inconsistent at best, and only recently has he logged major minutes at Club America. Jonathan Bornstein plays for Tigres at the U-20 level, and Heath Pearce plays in MLS, not the ideal level for a national team starter. Johnson is attack-oriented, just as Klinsmann likes, and his experience at the highest levels in Germany and positive situation at Hoffenheim make him an ideal candidate for the USMNT. Johnson is also just 23 years old, putting him in position to be a long term solution at left back, possibly through the 2018 World Cup.
The German national team has a plethora of young defenders coming through the ranks, so making the squad will be no easy task for Johnson. Johnson could very well make the German squad if he realizes his potential, but it would be a lengthy and trying process whereas the US could use him immediately. Klinsmann is in a unique position to simultaneously give Johnson international soccer and cure the USMNT's perennial illness at left back. If Klinsmann is acting now, Johnson could be in a US uniform for the Belgium friendly in September.
With Klinsmann at the helm of US Soccer, the US is one step closer to solidifying its back four, arguably the most uncertain part of the team. Johnson didn't exactly fall from the sky, but Klinsmann would be wise to reach out to him while he still can before he realizes that potential and opts for Germany on a permanent basis.
Full National Team Prognosis:
Position: Johnson is more of a left back than a left midfielder, and for the US it's not hard to figure out which position he would play.
Strengths: Like his fellow countryman Tim Chandler, Johnson has good size and powerful pace up and down the flank.
Weaknesses: Consistency. Johnson has begun to bounce back from his troubling years at Wolfsburg, but he needs to make quality shifts a habit.
USMNT Potential: It's not beyond Johnson to become the final solution at left back, making him nearly invaluable to the US. If Juergen hasn't already placed a call somewhere, it's mildly disappointing.
Estimated Time Until First Senior Cap: Once his paperwork clears, 1-3 months.