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Klinsmann weighing where to play Johnson in USMNT’s upcoming qualifiers

Fabian Johnson Borussia Moenchengladbach 92

Fabian Johnson is playing some of the best soccer of his career right now as a left midfielder, but not even that will guarantee that he plays that position when the U.S. Men’s National Team resumes World Cup qualifying in March.

Of all the Americans who are plying their trades in Europe right now, Johnson is arguably the one enjoying the strongest season. He has not only served as a regular starter for Borussia Moenchengladbach in both German Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League play, but has also been a big attacking threat by constantly scoring or setting up goals.

The 28-year-old strong run of form playing on the left side of Moenchengladbach’s defense has been so impressive that it led to a positional change for him with the U.S. back in November. Used predominantly as a fullback at the international level in recent years, Johnson was given a pair of starts on the left side of midfield in the Americans’ initial 2018 World Cup qualifiers vs. St Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago.

He scored the winner in the first match via a free kick, and his two-way play, especially his attacking edge, in both qualifiers was seen largely as a positive. Still, Johnson’s versatility and the U.S.’s lack of proven fullback options could see him return to the defense when the Americans face Guatemala in their next pair of qualifiers next month.

“Obviously having Fabian Johnson being able to play different positions on a very, very high level is a big plus for us. It’s a wonderful thing to have,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said earlier this week. “Obviously you like to kind of continue having a player play in the same role in the national team that he’s playing in his club team to just keep him consistent and keep him confident, but sometimes it’s not doable because of maybe problems in other positions you know he can fill out. He can play right back and left back as well, and on the wing of the midfield and both sides as well.

“That gives us a good feeling that he can switch over to that role, but obviously for him right now being on a roll on the left midfield side is a very comfortable situation. Ideally you want to continue that, but it depends really on who we have then as a left back and a right back available in the World Cup qualifiers. We will make the adjustments, and if he needs to play a fullback role, he is good with that and always has been very, very open to any role when it gets down to the national team.”

Klinsmann does have options at both fullback spots, but none bring the combination of offensive skills and defensive bite that Johnson provides. Tim Ream is solid in one-on-one battles, but lacks pace to really be a threat in the attack. DeAndre Yedlin is speedy enough to get up and down the flank, but can still be a liability in defense.

There are other candidates, too, like veterans Michael Orozco and Brad Evans, but they do not get forward as much and have proven to be hit-or-miss. Younger options like Kellyn Acosta and Desevio Payne look promising, but they lack experience and are more likely to be with the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team for its Olympic qualifying playoff series against Colombia in March.

Another factor that could ultimately lead to Johnson manning a fullback spot once again is the number of options Klinsmann has for the wide midfield positions. There is Alejandro Bedoya, who has been playing lights out for FC Nantes in recent weeks, and Gyasi Zardes. Darlington Nagbe has shown flashes in his recent cameos off the U.S. bench, Lee Nguyen also impressed in the Americans’ recent winter camp.

That all leaves Klinsmann in the precarious position of having to figure out where Johnson best fits in next month’s plans, which could see the Americans secure early advancement to the final phase of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Yes, Johnson might be the best wide midfielder the U.S. has right now, but he is also currently its best right back and left back.

[polldaddy poll=9316829]


  1. —————-Altidore—————-

    Williams for Cameron if he doesnt get fit.
    Everyone here plays in position accept for Dempsey, who plays a role he succeeded in at Fulham.

  2. I want and this isn’t a jock that Klinsmann leave, this team has been BAD since a while ago, I can’t see any improvement or something like that in a near future. Get the heel out from here Klinsmann.

  3. Start this lineup. It’s should roll over Guatemala.


    • Swap Jones for a more disciplined DM, and I actually really like this. Allows Yedlin to push up and make a 3-5-2 for any stretches of possession we have, which also pushes Bedoya more central into the CAM role he’s been having such good success in recently.

    • Overthink what? Playing our most tactically versatile player, in our weakest position; which also happens to be a position that FJ has twice as many club caps as he does at winger?

  4. I voted left back. Yes it pains me to not play our best attacking player in the position he plays for club, but I am a pragmatist before all else and the simple facts are (leaving out FJ) we can field 4-5 quality international players at the wide midfield positions and 0 at fullback. Yes I think Ream and Evans can man the fullback spots in a pinch against Guat, but they are more out of their comfort zones there positionally than FJ.

    Also big question marks about whether longtime starters Cameron and Jones will play. That may play into things as well.

    • ugh… we are making some major assumptions here. First we are assuming that you have to play a LB. Cameron, Brooks, and Miazga sound like a bad-ass back 3… Or Cameron, Brooks, and Ream/besler/gonzales if you have to for U-23 games.

      I don’t think you get yedlin, or morris, for guate because of U-23… and you might not get wood. So looking at it you go with Altidore and dempsey up front. Zardes and FJ on the wings… Bradley, nguyen/tchani/nagbe and williams in center… and a back 3… why not? they have no offense except on the counter.

      • You can’t just throw together a 3-man backline from the fly, no matter how much your personel seem to fit. It takes a lot of chemistry and cohesion to make it successful. On top of that, it is a difficult formation to run and execute if you have never played in it before. It takes a lot of understanding of you’re role, and your CB-partners to maintain the appropriate offensive and defensive shapes and more crucially during the transitions between the two.

        So, unless you’re advocate for the entire USMNT structure to officially adopt the 3-5-2/5-3-2 system, which they won’t, because our entire youth system has adopted the 4-3-3 (and 4-4-2 depending on opponents) system, the point is moot. None of our players have ever been exposed for a consistent period to a 3-man backline, so it would take almost the entire 2 years leading up to WC to get it right.

  5. zardes is pretty much a lock to start, and his best position for the national team has been in the right midfield. coach klinsmann loves his motor, smarts, and potential for growth. he is a certainty at right mid.

    bedoyas recent performance cant be ignored, and the coach has pointed to his contribution in big games in france as evidence that he will be in the starting 11.

    junior is going to be in the middle, and there is no one tougher then JJ, so I think this leaves a clear picture. wood is starting, and coach klinsmann probably regrets not starting him against t and t.

    Geoff Cameron has a month to round into shape and his health will lock down the right central defense. DY has a pretty solid case for the right back spot, and playing there in the EPL can only make this more palpable.

    this road Guatemala game will see the US team playing with a strong spine, and some serious pace coming down the wings. strikers to finish, and talent on the bench. we might look for Dempsey to be a 60 min sub on the road, and that would have to really scare the guatos.

    these next two games are no pushovers, especially on the road, and I think coach klinsmann will really be looking for all six points. he was not looking for three points so much in port o spain.

    • No disrespect intended of course but there is no way on god’s green earth that Zardes is winning the right mid position from Bedoya who will not play inside due to MB and Nguyen+Nagbe arrival and success, especially Lee. Bedoya is our Right mid in any midfield diamond, flat, bucket, name your midfield formation and Bedoya is the MAN right now because of his form in Nantes. That is, unless Bedoya did something to make Klinsmann upset.

      • I would recommend you go look at the lineup sheet for this past gold cup game against Cuba. You will get a clear idea of where players will be playing in th next qualifier. Zardes did not start the panama third place game, or play one minute, and he did not start the Haiti gold cup group stage game, but came on at half, and the USA scored a minute later. He has started every other meaningful match since the World Cup.

  6. Ream is fine at LB…imo the perfect LB for the Guat away game.

    We’re going to thump Guat when we play them here…you could probably bring Agoos out of retirement to play LB and still do fine.

    So I’m hoping to see Fab at LM.

  7. Why have a poll where someone can just keep voting over and over again? It makes no sense and doesn’t give any sense of what is what. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because there really is only one spot that makes sense for Fabian Johnson.

    It is not going to be super hot in Guatemala, but it is very likely to be humid, and that is tough weather for the German born American. One question should be; would Johnson run more playing two ways in midfield, or playing as a wingback? The answer has to be he will run more playing in midfield, and that’s with the understanding that he will be doing it both ways.

    Left back makes the most sense. In the big games for the USA, Fabian has played wingback and this is the position where he has been most valuable. There is one big game, which Fabian showed really well in midfield, and that was the panama game in Seattle, where Cameron played d mid. But on the down side, against panama in the third place game, and on the road in Costa Rica in the last hex, both below par performances.

    In the first half an hour of the Belgium game USA looked very equal to their round of 16 opponent. Fabian was playing right back, even though the official pre game lineup had him on the wing. The point is, he can help to control a game from a wingback spot, just as easily, if not even better than if he was in the midfield.

    Players get older and they tend to move into a more defensive postures. This is Fabians future on our national team, and it is a position of such need, I mean Jesus……

    Fill in the rest of the starting lineup around bedoya at left mid, zardes on the right. And Fabian Johnson behind bedoya at left back.

    • I noticed that about the poll as well, but it didn’t upset me. One reason has to be that I decided with the majority, but another big reason is that I assume SBIers are mostly mature adults. Sure, we all have our differences in experience, research, and perception, but I haven’t seen many spammers or trolls ’round these parts in the last decade plus. I tend to trust the implications of the poll.

      FJ behind Bedoya does sound like a great 442 wing, but I wonder if they’d do better on the right side, and I’m not sold on Zardes, especially at RM.

      • I think Kiesenwetter is already better as a midfielder than Zardes. At first, I was impressed by Zardes, but the more I’ve seen, the less impressed I’ve been. His first touch is atrocious. Yes, it can get better, but it’s so bad that he makes Jozy look like Pele.

      • Why is it that we insist on playing 4 in the back? if we don’t have a left back… then we play without one…

    • The objective is to score more goals than your opponent so I don’t get why we wouldnkeep entertaining put our most creative, technical player at fullback. No question FJ is our best fullback, which doesn’t say much considering the other options, but the other options are solid and can do the job vs Guatemala. Keep FJ at LM where has been on a tear of late to allow that form to continue with the NT and I think we’ll be pleased as a result of it. Ream can hold LB down for these 2 matches and in the fall maybe the likes of Shea, Villafana or even Desevio Payne can step up and make the position their own.

      • “The objective is to score more goals than your opponent so I don’t get why we wouldnkeep entertaining put our most creative, technical player at fullback.”

        because fabian’s shown he can contribute to the attack from the fullback position as well. without verifying, i’m pretty sure his attacking stats are fairly consistent whether he’s lined up at fullback or wide mid, as he overlaps a good bit from the back.

        so for the guatemala games, i’m echoing gary page and saying it really doesn’t matter where he starts, depending on who else is in the starting xi. fabian is an improvement over anyone else in the wide spots, so klinsmann can start who he wants to see and have fabian fill in the last position available.

  8. We’re playing Guatemala, so it doesn’t really matter much. It will matter when we start playing in the Hex. Maybe by then Brek Shea will emerge as a credible LB.Right now I think we have about 25 players we can play in a number of different positions and the value of the team will be pretty much the same however you arrange the pieces (within reason, of course). Consider–back line : CB’s include Besler, Gonzalez, Brooks, Alvarado, Miazga, Orozco, Cameron, Birnbaum and maybe a couple of others. Outside backs include Yedlin, Castillo, maybe Shea, F Johnson, Evans, Ream, and Cameron. . Midfielders include MB,Danny Williams, maybe Jermaine Jones, Bedoya, F Johnson, Nagbe, Finlay, Ngyuen, Diskerud, and Zardes. Up front there is Altidore, Dempsey, Wood, maybe Zardes, possibly Morris, and Aron Johannsson if he ever gets healthy. That’s a lot of players we can count on for this year. I’m guessing that if you asked 20 posters here to pick their best XI, there would be 20 different line-ups.

  9. I find that when I read articles I just skim over the Klinsmann quotes. Usually, if it looks like the article is going to be based around an interview with him I’ll just skip it entirely.

    It’s just so not worth it to read about anything he says: The things he say have little or no relationship to reality and don’t even reflect how he chooses to run the team.

      • How did you know?

        Ha. Just kidding. No, it’s because regardless of whether I agree with his decision or not, he doesn’t even do the things he says he’ll do. His reflections on a game or his comments about what he plans to do seem to be created by a randomizer filled with soccer words. Similar to his tactical decision-making.

    • LOL.. similarly with me. JK quotes just usually make me want to tear out my hair! He wants to baffle us with BS for the sake of the media coverage.. and then at match time, he turns into this little kid in his grandmothers basement, with his video game controller clutched tightly in both hands as he plugs and plays his players every witch/way to his hearts content.

      I feel that he should build the roster around FJ’s playing at the LM!, where he is as hot as any American player in the game right now. Why lose the cohesion of his success during qualifying. Same goes with Bobby Wood as one of two up top. I hope that JK will find a solid CB partner to work beside Cameron. The way JK continually switches defenders leaves us with zero cohesion and chemistry. Also, Brad Guzan is not a prime time keeper imho. Great in flashes but seemingly always finds a way to make a crucial mistake! Keep Howard in the goal as long as we can.

  10. This is all because JK insists on MB/JJ pairing requiring LM/RM that play tucked in requiring a wingback to get any width.

    Maybe we should build our roster around FJ….the USAs best player.

    • Ideally he should play left midfield, most of us agree on that (JK even). . .but when you have a more dire situation at the fullback position than you do at wide midfield, idealism and pragmatism start to have some friction.

      For these upcoming games at least, I’d like to see us play with Ream and Evans at outside back, with Besler and Jones in the middle. Our fullbacks won’t have to go far beyond the half way line, and they can pinch back when Jones (and sometimes Besler) advance with the ball, exploiting holes in the center. With FJ-Nagbe-Bradley-Bedoya in the midfield, we’d have four solid two-way players able to balance each other in attack and support. Nagbe is obviously the least vetted among those names, but I personally prefer him to the current alternatives, inside or out, e.g. Zardes, Mix, Nguyen, Finlay. . .

      I want to get more looks at our defensive minded CM prospects, like Williams, but until we can count on our fullbacks, I’d like to see a more dynamic box-to-box midfielder play with Bradley.

      I’d be fine with moving FJ back to play a traditional 433, but at this point, I think our team would be weaker.

      There’s a lot of players I’m excited to see more of, but I think we have to be patient with them at this point in the international schedule.


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