Fabian Johnson likes to have the ball, to get forward and press. “I like to help create,” the USA’s wide man with a pronounced German accent told FIFA.com, with an urgency that sounded almost like impatience. An attacker at his core, when Johnson moves up the pitch for the Stars and Stripes, things happen, whether he’s lining up as a back or a wide midfielder.
The opening goal of last week’s 2-0 win over Panama, hands-down the Americans’ best game so far in qualifying, was testament to Johnson’s panache flying forward on the left. His rampaging run, deft touch and inch-perfect cross opened the door for Jozy Altidore to tap home the simplest of finishes. “In defence it’s more about breaking things up and getting the ball to safety,” he sighed, having also been used at left and right back for the States. “I really want to go up. This is what I like.”
Born in Munich, Germany, Johnson – the son of a serviceman father from the US state of Michigan, and a German mother – is an American hero in the making. “The call surprised me," he admits of the time USA coach and German football legend Jurgen Klinsmann called him up to talk about joining the US national team. "I was having dinner!”
“It was always a possibility for me,” said Johnson of playing in USA. He holds dual US and German citizenship, but has spent all of his life living in Germany, with only the occasional holiday visit to North America. “It was an honour when Klinsmann invited me and the time was right.”
Johnson, now 25, swapped the German shirt he’d worn with distinction at youth level and made his first appearance for USA in November 2011. He is one of a handful of German-born players Klinsmann has introduced, and along with Jermaine Jones in the heart of central midfield, he is among the best. And the coach was not shy about his high hopes for the speedy, modern wide man, either. “He will become one of the best left backs in the German Bundesliga,” the former Germany coach said of Johnson. “Now I think he’s got what it takes to become one of the best in Europe.”
The versatile speedster has earned 13 caps for the US in his year-and-half with the team, and he admits that the differences between playing in the German Bundesliga, where he lined up with home-town side 1860 Munich and Wolfsburg before joining current club Hoffenheim, are many and significant. “Everything is different,” he admitted, from his hotel room near the High Rockies of Utah, in the heart of his adoptive nation. “Everything around the game is different here. There’s a lot of travel, the crowds are wild on the road. The grass is different and the fields too. It’s a lot to get used to,” he added, citing the USA’s historic friendly win against arch-rivals Mexico at the famous Estadio Azteca last August as a high point of his whirlwind tour of the CONCACAF zone.
Fans warm to new man
While he was criticised in some quarters for his performance in the States’ tactical win over Jamaica in Kingston on 7 June, he more than made up for it with his stunning game against Panama before a crowd in Seattle that rivalled any he’d seen in the high-profile German Bundesliga. “My goodness, the fans were great,” he said of the more than 40,000 supporters who created a frenzied atmosphere for the win that put the Americans into first place in the Hexagonal. “You get so much energy when you have fans like that behind you, and it was as good as any crowd I’ve seen.”
Up next for Johnson and his mates is a date with Honduras in Utah. It is a game with special meaning, a rematch of the opener that the Americans lost in San Pedro Sula – one that sparked rough treatment in the American sports media. “We didn’t start well,” said Johnson, who expects to watch game tapes of the Hondurans’ recent performances ahead of Tuesday’s showdown. “But in football, it is always up and down and now we’re growing together with each game. We are confident and doing what the coach tells us.”
A man accustomed to the organisation and discipline of one of Europe’s top leagues, Johnson understands the importance of gelling as a team, having an increased understanding among the players. “We have been together in camp for almost four weeks now, and this makes the difference. We are pushing ourselves and becoming a proper team,” said Johnson, eager for the next test, a home game likely to offer him plenty of chances to race forward as he likes. “The game plan against Honduras will be simple: attack them early, score, and keep them on their toes."