The date 21 November 2016 marked the end of an era for the USA, as Jurgen Klinsmann was relieved of his duties as national team coach. The 52-year-old had led the Stars and Stripes for over five years and presided over 98 matches, winning 55, drawing 15 and losing 28.
That record gave the decorated former Germany striker a win percentage of 57.3, better than every one of his predecessors to have been in charge for more than five games. Klinsmann led USA to triumph at the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup and to qualification from the so-called group of death – featuring Germany, Portugal and Ghana – at Brazil 2014.
However, the team’s progress stalled in recent months and they began their qualification campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ with costly defeats at home to Mexico (2-1) and away in Costa Rica (4-0). Sunil Gulati, President of the United States Soccer Federation, made it clear that dismissing Klinsmann was the organisation’s only course of action: “The form and development of the team left us convinced that we need to go in a different direction.”
Wide midfielder Fabian Johnson heard of the decision through the media and expressed some surprise in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “I thought it was a great shame,” said the 29-year-old. “We did well at the Copa America – nobody would have expected us to get that far. We also qualified for the Hexagonal [CONCACAF’s six-team final qualifying group for Russia 2018] pretty comfortably, although we started the campaign with two defeats. Unfortunately, I wasn’t consulted in the decision, but I think it happened pretty quickly. Those two games were the decisive factor.”
Like Klinsmann, Johnson was born and raised in Germany, and though he may have been sad to see the former go, the Borussia Monchengladbach man is focused on the immediate future. He believes he is “working very well with the new coach” and is now eager to see how the team reacts to the change in management.
“Our performances won’t change 100 per cent just because a new coach is coming in,” said the Munich native. With 50 caps, he is also one of the squad’s most experienced players and, as such, is expected to provide leadership.
Unsurprisingly, he is determined to help the team climb from the bottom of the table. “First of all, I have to perform well. I need to keep working like I was when we were successful, and I can’t let myself be distracted,” said the versatile midfielder, whilst also preaching realism about his side’s chances in the Hexagonal. “We’ve started badly with those two defeats, but we can’t let ourselves go crazy about it.”
Still optimisticEvidently, Johnson has by no means written off his side’s chances of booking their place at Russia 2018, or his own personal ambition of appearing at a second FIFA World Cup. “I’m still very optimistic. There have only been two games, we still have another eight to go.”
The North Americans are next in action at home to Honduras at the end of March, before travelling to Panama four days later, and after their poor start, six points must be the objective. Taking charge from the touchline will be 65-year-old veteran Bruce Arena, who previously held the post between 1998 and 2006. Johnson is excited by what the much-respected American can bring to the role, and revealed Arena has already been to visit him in Monchengladbach. “We’ve spoken personally and we’ve talked about the current situation. We agreed that we have to get through those qualifiers in March.”
Johnson played in all four of USA’s games at Brazil 2014 and describes the tournament as “one of the best in the world” and “an unbelievable experience”. Together with the new coach, he now intends to add to those appearances by ensuring his side do enough to qualify for Russia 2018. Klinsmann awarded Johnson every one of his 50 caps, and so his departure marked a watershed moment for the former Hoffenheim winger. Now, under a new mentor in Arena, Johnson hopes to lead the USA down a successful path once again.