photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — No Timmy Chandler at left back. No problem.
For a second straight game, Fabian Johnson filled in for the absent Chandler at the position that has proved most troublesome for the U.S. men's national team in recent years. And just as he did against Italy in February, Johnson proved himself more than capable of holding his own at left back in the United States' 5-1 victory over Scotland at EverBank Field on Saturday night.
In fact, Johnson's performance in place of Chandler (who denied a call-up for this summer's games) may have seen him lock down the starting spot for the foreseeable future.
"For us having now a very good core of midfielders, this is for us ideal to use him in that (defensive) role because he is technically very gifted," said Klinsmann, "he never panicks, he's calm on the ball, and that allows us then to combine from behind and you don't have to bang the balls forward. I think we have here a very special player developing in the U.S. team with Fabian."
Johnson demonstrated some special qualities in the game that marked his first time playing in the United States, especially on offense. Johnson helped stretch Scotland's back line by constantly making marauding runs forward on the left flank, and he even showed his quality dribbling skills on a pair of occasions.
On one play in the first half, Johnson received a pass deep in the visitors' half and then looked up to see two defenders in his way. Rather than dish the ball back out, the TSG 1899 Hoffenheim defender, who was playing left back for just the second time with the U.S. team, dribbled into the penalty area before cutting inside two players and setting up Terrence Boyd with a shot in front of goal.
"His athleticism, he's intelligent, his positioning, he's tidy on the ball, his composure on the ball," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra of what Johnson brings to the team. "He's a smart player."
Johnson has received accolades for much of the week, with Klinsmann calling him the best left back in the Bundesliga during the final few months of this past season. Klinsmann did point out that Johnson enjoys playing left midfield and getting into the attack more during his postgame press conference, and that could be why the coach instructed his versatile player to get forward early and often.
"He told me I have to play like a winger," said Johnson. "Go forward from the defense and that's what I did."
Johnson exploited the space in front of him against Scotland as left sided attacker Jose Torres normally tucked in, and the 24-year-old defender constantly provided an outlet on the flank for his teammates. He joined in on the attack more often than counterpart Steve Cherundolo, even picking up a pair of fouls in dangerous positions in his fourth cap with the U.S. Team.
Johnson still needs to continue to prove that he can handle the rigors of left back, including when to pick and choose his spots to get forward and when to stay defensively disciplined. Scotland did not provide much of a threat going forward, so Johnson was able to sprint up and down the touchline with little to worry about.
The Brazil game will be a different story. But if Johnson manages to pull out an equally impressive performance, he'd take another step towards establishing himself as the left back of the immediate future and helping U.S. fans forget about Chandler.